Decades ago when I and others waxed warm in the theory and practice of management (as it was spoken and written), I was regaled with a story about the recruitment process which involved the president of the company itself. The interview took place in his penthouse office in the USA, and of course the best of the interviewees had been screened earlier for the high level accounting position. The setting was carefully arranged so that each candidate was to be taken by surprise in the first instance. For one thing when he entered the spacious office the interviewee had to cross over a virtually unfurnished room except for a large desk recessed in a far corner. All that could be seen was the high back of a chair behind it, from which a voice ordered the unnerved applicant to take a seat. The employer had obviously studied the résumé carefully, so as he swung around to face the newcomer he posed a single question in a most aggressive manner; ‘One and One?’ he bellowed. The startled interviewee unprepared for such a simplistic enquiry stammered an unintelligible answer, and consequently was immediately dismissed, dumbfounded by the gravity of the encounter.
The second candidate confronted with the same exercise was sufficiently self-assured to respond enquiringly ‘Two?’ After a brief reflection his prospective employer promised to ‘get in touch’ with him. Came the third candidate with swagger, and took his seat bravely awaiting the swing of the chair. Its occupant once again demanded – “One and One?” Came the bold answer, “Just tell me how much you want to make.”
Somehow the story never got the appreciation intended, for those were the days of principle, standards and honest accountability. Now decades after, the apocryphal tale resonates meaningfully. We are now caught in an environment of creating illusions wherein decision-making has to be explained, manipulated and defended for want of a principle on which it should be based.
No longer is there agreement on standards in respect of which the decision-maker can be measured. Rather it is the latter’s status, doubtful as it is, that is taken into account.
The personality cult which (mis)informs well-publicised decision-making, rather than devaluing the decisions, is actually applauded by those who would benefit from the products.
Implicit in the aforementioned tale is the predisposition to dishonesty, to fiddling with facts, to believing in the misinformation one creates, and also that enmeshing that such material will be credible to the target audience.
In this personality cultism is the profound misapprehension that there is not at least one citizen/person in whom resides more expert knowledge on the subject generated by the illusionist.
So pervasive is the spread of such self-deception that even the once assertive candidates amongst us succumb to, indeed thrive in, the enmeshing and emasculating mediocrity. Captains of industry and commerce would disagree violently with this perspective, reluctant as they are in the comfortable company of those who would make it ‘add up’ to just how it is required.
Content as they are with their apparent success, too many managers are unaware of the examples of indiscipline they set, individually and severally, for more (intentionally) sensitised and enquiring generations.
Notwithstanding the published success of the institutions they manage their (high) level of management distances them from the unspoken disatisfactions of too many young and ambitious employees who view not only from the bottom, but also from outside, and who query amongst themselves how do ‘one and one’ add up in terms of their careers.
The outcome is a turnover of potential skills and competencies that are indifferently taken for granted. Human Resource Management is but a concern left to a middle level ‘officer’ who is relatively under-equipped to tell the boss what is the sum total of ‘one and one.’
So we are left with too many celebrants of mediocrity rather than of character.
Those of us who have survived the earlier years had the benefit of role models; outstanding amongst them was the late Harold B Davis who was a natural tutor and who set about developing male and female staffers alike by scheduling time to share ideas, ideals, principles and the process of good evidentially-based decision-making. As he himself grew he made certain room for both colleagues and subordinates to grow with him.
Wittingly or not his tutorship in GuySuCo prepared me for the transition to the Caricom Secretariat, then under the leadership of Dr Kurleigh King, who had committed himself to resuscitating what the Prime Minister of Trinidad Eric Williams described as a “dead” Caricom. Together we established the first Personnel (Human Resources) Desk.
Unlike the very sociable Harold Davis, Kurleigh King was abstemious in that regard. He dispensed leadership from across an uncluttered desk. His self-discipline made its mark on all with whom he interacted as he insisted on responding to whomever demanded his attention at the time that was promised. The result was that those who worked for him emulated the practice of discipline without being asked. Time management was a feature of which the organisation was proud.
What so engaged males, and particularly females, who at times might have had distracting domestic commitments was his insistence in letting be known both the starting and the ending time of a meeting. Consequently there was always a full respectful and responsive house where discussion either culminated in decisiveness, and the more complex issues deferred for another period of concentrated analysis. In this unique way King showed himself to be a people’s person – a kind never since emulated by his successors.
Wherever is the search these days – in private and public institutions – it is hard to find similar models of rectitude in business decision-making, and the deliberate development of human capital. Will our stars of business pitch forward and acclaim themselves as champions of the growth of people as their philosophy of managing development?
E B John