It’s not often that a music review raises a laugh, let alone a complicated one. The first example I remember was of Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, which she reviewed with a single word. The word was ‘Yes’. (If memory is functioning, the critic was Julie Birchill.) More recently, a Kate Mossman review of a Bon Jovi album in New Statesman also raised a smile, mostly for its opening paragraph:
Here’s a bit of fun: which of the following are US presidential campaign slogans and which are songs by Bon Jovi? Something to Believe in. Believe in America. Made in America. Another Reason to Believe. A Stronger America. Forward. Undivided. The Distance. Change. Taking it Back. Bring it On. We Can Do Better. Yes We Can. Because We Can. What About Now.”
(In case you’re wondering, songs/slogans 1,3, 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13 were Bon Jovi; 2 was Mitt Romney; 5 and 11 were John Kerry; 6, 9 and 13 were Barack Obama; and 12 was JF Kennedy. Perhaps Kerry and Obama have missed vocations as stadium rockers?)
Ms Mossman’s point was that ‘stadium rock employs the same nebulous, inspirational vocab as politics’, although she might well have substituted other nouns for ‘politics’. But my reaction was not, like her, to give recognition to Bon Jovi for ‘infusing John Doe with inspirational sentiment’ but to reflect more on that nagging similarity of vocabulary. And on the way that so many popular songs that, lyrically, expressed one sentiment have been appropriated by causes with different agendas. Although she mentions Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA (a war veteran’s angry rant) being hijacked by Reagan for its air-punching chorus, the phenomenon is not uniquely American. As a BBC news item shows, popular songs have been hijacked – almost invariably without consent – in many countries.
In recent weeks, two leaders have captured headlines by doing something usually thought of as unthinkable for someone in their position: Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands abdicated the throne and – also acting on historic precedence, but a much older on – Pope Benedict XVI resigned.
Although the Catholic church is facing considerable turbulence and the lingering whiff in the aisles is as much potential scandal as incense, there is no current indication that the resignation was either forced or ‘timely’. Nor has Queen Beatrix been a stranger to public criticism and scrutiny, and responded publicly to an extent that the British might find unusual compared to our own monarch. (Surprisingly un-English, the Dutch, as we’ve commented before.)
Although these are departures from office rather than ‘this mortal coil’, another Shakespeare quote – from the Scottish play – sprang to mind:
Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.
The editors of People Management know a good pull quote when they see one. In a sector of trade publishing more prone than most to ‘attention grabbers’ that leave the reader with a sense that someone nearby will shortly be waving their Buzzword Bingo card aloft and shouting ‘House!’, the following certainly attracted our eyeballs:
Hiding behind your desk in a suit isn’t the answer anymore.”
The speaker is Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazilian company Semco. People Management describe him as ‘the forgotten business guru’, which seems an odd appellation for a man whose organisation continues to thrive and grow. And the attention that he does receive has tended to focus far more heavily on his divergence from ‘conventional wisdom’ than the success that he has achieved. There’s a ‘why?’ begging to be asked.
In a recent Forbes blog, 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders, Susan Tardanico suggests ten actions leaders can take that will – she argues – have positive benefits for them and for those they lead.
- Confront reality head-on.
- Seek feedback and listen.
- Say what needs to be said.
- Encourage push-back.
- Take action on performance issues.
- Communicate openly and frequently.
- Lead change.
- Make decisions and move forward.
- Give credit to others.
- Hold people (and yourself) accountable.
While Tardanico’s original blog offers explanations and contextualisation for each of these items, her preceding paragraphs offered a broader context of period of a tenuous economy and an environment of workplace stress and anxiety during which many – including leaders – may be strongly tempted to keep their heads down and avoid risk. The remarks and comments it’s invoked, however, cover rather greater ground – and in some cases beg larger questions.
You can pretty much see how the cookbook task is going to pan out (sorry) fairly early on, to be honest. Before the challenge is even set, Maria is being ‘assertive’ and saying ‘The boys are actually weak compared to us’. We’ll judge that one, dear: you just let them speak occasionally, eh?
Mind you, David isn’t helping, talking up how the boys have ‘boardroom experience’ now. “We’ve done losing in depth” is a very strange pitching strategic. And one of the boys is clearly seen wearing what I can only describe as novelty socks. I know they’re young, but please: you’re on the telly. Have some dignity. (One of the few lessons that life has taught me conclusively is the wit in men wearing novelty socks usually stops just above the ankle.)
And so to the brief. The task is all about ‘good presentation’. (Which possibly explains why Karren is wearing what looks for all the world like a tight black leather sports bra. Has Patrick been doing some private commissions?) Translating this into something more concrete, they are going to create a cook book, punt it at three major retailers and – surprise! – the most sales wins. To stir things up a bit, Maria becomes a boy and Steven becomes a girl. Not literally, of course. I doubt the BBC has the courage to broadcast a game show about teenage cross-dressing right now.
Every culture, however broadly or narrowly you define it, tends to have its ideals, including the type of people that it holds up for admiration. We may think of etiquette as being the preserve of delicate ladies in lace gloves, but every situation has its own protocols. ‘Honour amongst thieves’ is a type of etiquette too. But cultural ideals embrace personal and behavioural styles as well as social manners. Being ‘the ideal’ type can be about more than which fork you use for the fish course or where you were schooled. Consider the following quotes:
On the surface, I was an all-American teenager, a rah-rah cheerleader type. But deep down I was a shy and lonely outsider. It took some long years of self-reflection to break through my old fears and come into my own.
I was this shy, introverted kid and through the game and through athletics I was able to gain a lot more confidence and express myself on the field. It is about enjoying themselves and that’s what I could tell about all of these girls. They played hard, respected the game and just had fun doing it.
I can’t speak for you, of course, but I got one consistent message: extroverts and extroversion are more admirable than introverts and introversion. The ‘rah-rah cheerleader’ trumps the ‘shy, introverted kid’: the bold, fun-loving and gregarious extrovert is not just the type to admire, but the type to become if at all possible. Introverts are the ones who get their heads wedged in toilet bowls in high school, while their extrovert peers are the ones who get the applause/prize/girl/boy.
Although phrases like ‘fat cats’ – and less complimentary – are probably being bandied about more in the last few years than for a couple of decades or so, recent news coverage seems to indicate that executive stress is as much a rising concern in the economy as workplace stress generally. Last week, the BBC website ran a story Executives feel the heat in challenging times. Today, The Independent upped the emotional ante in some sections of its feature article: How the City slickers lost their mojo. Starting its story around one particular City restaurant, it makes startlingly bleak reading, especially for a feature about the City – an environment in which ‘talking it up’ is most people’s expectation of the cultural norm:
No one calls the Coq D’Argent The Money Chicken any more. It’s famous for rather different reasons than laughter and cash lately. In the last few weeks, two City workers have jumped to their deaths from the bar. Four have done so since 2007.
It’s probably wrong to draw any link between the terrible decisions made by some desperately unhappy people and the wider mood around EC2, but the old Money Chicken crowd, whose humour always ranged from mawkish to black in any case, think it’s not coincidental.
“We know how they felt,” goes the line from the trading crew, and they don’t smile when the say it. The City of London is miserable.
The apparent link between the type of language an organisation wants to hear and work-related stress may not be so coincidental as the Independent’s article hints.
A few days ago, Shawn Murphy published a rather fine blog post, Stop Doing More With Less. He did so not in the spirit of trying to stamp out insightful process and practice reviews, human ingenuity or innovation but in the – rather admirable – spirit of encouraging people who should know better from spouting hackneyed phrases that serve to avoid the issues they may originally have been coined to address.
As Shawn’s posting suggests, it’s – regrettably – all too easy to conclude that there is a type of manager who believes that the verb ‘to resource’ (moderately ghastly in itself, although not as unattractive as the recent outbreak of ‘to medal’ that’s been dribbling from our TV speakers) is declined along the following lines:
I am limiting or removing your resources
You will increase your productivity regardless
It will be fine
We are not going to have a problem with this, now are we?
You need to recognise that, or
They may question your engagement and commitment.
Wherever and whenever we interact with others – as colleagues, suppliers or customers, or even as parent and child – our values provide scope for conflict. Depending on the arena in question, the meaning we give to the word ‘transaction’ can vary (although in its broadest sense of ‘dealings’, it’s not necessary that currency changes hands), but the interplay of values and commerce provides the most fertile soil for problems to rise like weeds.
In one very public arena over the last few days, we have the example of Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, angered at his treatment at the hands of Facebook’s business negotiators. Caldwell, a software developer, was dismayed at the chasm he saw between the values he places on the role of social networking platforms and the business style of Facebook, which – and I hope I paraphrase with some degree of responsibility and accuracy – he felt had decided that he simply needed to be acquired. Or, as Caldwell himself put it at one point in his dismayed blog posting:
Mark, I don’t believe that the humans working at Facebook or Twitter want to do the wrong thing. The problem is, employees at Facebook and Twitter are watching your stock price fall, and that is causing them to freak out. Your company, and Twitter, have demonstrably proven that they are willing to screw with users and 3rd-party developer ecosystems, all in the name of ad-revenue. Once you start down the slippery-slope of messing with developers and users, I don’t have any confidence you will stop.
If Peter Drucker’s estate received a pound every time someone quotes his words “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, the proceeds would probably fund a truly VIP mausoleum – or possibly a well-financed charitable foundation. Indeed, 2012 is a year in which several clichés have flown home to roost. Whether we attribute the phrase “With power comes great responsibility” to Franklin D Roosevelt or Spiderman (it seems the former inspired the latter and your choice is down to personal preference), the relationship between the two has certainly been generating its fair share of the headlines recently.
While the kneejerk reaction is to cry that we are living in a shameless era, it’s worth pausing to reflect that the opposite is largely true: 2012 has actually been a year of bad behaviour or material failure being exposed. We would not be living in the era of Leveson, Hackgate, G4S, Libor scandals, money laundering and the rest if errant behaviour were continuing to go entirely unreprimanded. But even with that modestly cheering reflection, the lack of feelgood factor is hardly a surprise. Feelgood has been about as commonplace as sunshine.