Over the years, I've observed a strange phenomenon where organisations seem to keep functioning despite gross managerial incompetence. The first job I worked in after the gun club (which was my weekend job when I was at school) was a retail business and it was an interesting experience from the point of view that the owner, when selling to customers, especially ones from foreign countries, would put on a bizarre accent and try and match the way in which he thought they spoke.
If you can imagine Basil Fawlty attempting to speak like a Chinaman, then you’re starting to understand what it was like. Despite this being insanely insulting, it was more amusing to watch than anything else, but at the end of the day, he was good at selling and the business did very well.
However, my next job couldn't have been a greater contrast. The organisation had suffered a major setback and as a result, they'd gotten rid of several managers. One of them, who was my direct boss had been really good at his job. However, they were trying to find someone to blame for what had happened a year earlier and so they fired him. What came next was a disastrous series of hopeless, disengaged and incompetent managers who, rather than rebuilding the organisation, drove it deeper into the ground.
It was frustrating and disappointing to watch, as the place had so much potential. If only they’d had the right person to guide! That's all it needed! One competent leader, rather than a series of useless incompetent managers. No matter how hard the staff tried to do their best, it was a pointless uphill battle in which their morale was continuously destroyed by one individual after another who were there for all the wrong reasons.
At one point, because one of these managers didn't understand the first thing about Australian employment regulations, nor possessed common sense, he handed out a roster that had people working 60hrs a week, every single week. Looking over it, it was relentless for everyone, except for him, who I noticed was down for a neat 5 days every week from 8:30am to 3:30pm.
When I pointed out in a staff meeting, the legal considerations, he actually had to make when rostering, as well as the danger of burning staff out, he yelled, threw a copy of the roster across the room, complained how long it took him to do it, demanded if anyone else had a problem with it and then walked out before anyone could answer. Everyone just stay there looking at each other dumbfounded.
I eventually left, as it became unbearable working for such a person. The culture in the organisation went against everything I believed in and the longer I remained, the worse I was seeing it get.
After this experience, for the next few years I took up a different sort of challenge and ran my own business. It was a busy café by the beach, I employed almost 30 staff and I won't go into details on this right now, but after 18 months my head cook took over as manager and ran the business for me for another four and a half years until I sold it. This was a great experience and one from which I learnt a lot about managing and leading an organisation.
Stepping back into education, I worked for a few different schools that varied considerably in their levels of mis-management. I was once again sitting in pointless meetings in which those in management positions were there by default and not owing to any significant talent on the leadership front. I reached the point where no matter what was suggested to improve a school I was working for, especially after they’d asked the staff for ideas, I could see this was just a tokenistic gesture and the organisation didn’t actually value what the staff thought. I started to feel myself becoming disengaged and only doing what I really had to do, nothing more. I knew once again it was time to leave.
Having quickly worked out that regular classrooms weren’t for me. I returned to outdoor education when an opportunity to work on a ski program came up. As soon as I started, I was impressed with the organisation’s positive and proactive culture and the way in which the director mentored and supported staff. It was a friendly atmosphere where we ran an intense 10 week skiing and academic program. You'd be up at 6am for a quick breakfast, then on the bus by 7:15am to drive to the snow. Ski lessons until 11:30, back on the bus, down to campus, lunch, afternoon classes until 5 and then dinner at 6:30. After this it was homework supervision at 7:30 and bed time at 10:00pm!
It was frantic and yet fantastic at the same time. We dealt with a high-risk sports activity on a daily basis with a large group of students. Yet we had comparatively few injuries and the students got so much out of it. I've never worked more hours each week in my life, but at no stage did I feel burnt out nor despondent. The determining factor was effective leadership. The staff felt valued, which translated into happy staff, happy students and everyone working towards a shared vision of what we were trying to achieve.
I spent 6 seasons working on this program before I moved on to the next role and I still have the fondest of memories of working there.
Unfortunately, after this excellent experience, it was once again back into a dysfunctional organisation. So how and why do these organisations survive? If the leadership in a new business was as dysfunctional as some of the places I’ve worked, you'd be out of business in no time! However, the reality is, established businesses and organisations are able to somewhat weather the storm of managerial incompetence far longer than new ones. At the same time, they’re also far more susceptible to it.
This doesn’t mean an organisation with dysfunctional management will ever thrive. It just can’t. These businesses just roll along day in day out because employees are motivated by having a job so they can pay the bills. When this is the sole motivation for someone to turn up to work, employees will only ever do the bare minimum. Staff don't bother questioning how useless and stupid the situation is and despite the dysfunctional management, the organisation continues to function. In reality though, everyone’s just treading water and looking for a way out. As soon as employees finds a better job, they’ll be out the door as fast as they can.
Some people get stuck in this merry-go-round, accept mediocrity and never move on. Instead, they get dragged down into the vicious cycle themselves and perhaps staying there long enough will get promoted themselves.
However, if you want to thrive personally in your career, you need to get yourself away from these toxic dysfunctional messes as fast as you can. Even though it might work, the organisation is going nowhere fast and nor are you.
When people and organisations stagnate and start down a path of mediocrity, it affects every other aspect of your life. Your friends, your family and your happiness in general are victims. So rather than put up with functional dysfunction because it’s an easy way to get paid each week, seek out something new, something fresh and interesting. Find somewhere where your contribution is truly valued and you can grow personally and professionally. The difference this will make to your life and those around you will be phenomenal.
You promised us a Scandinavian saga style opera on 1st Jan! What Happened???
Well that’s a fair enough question and whilst I apologise to my 10s of readers who were eagerly anticipating the whole saga to begin at the start of the new year and play out in all its epic glory, instead at the time I was busy getting snowed in on my trip to the US as I explored opportunities and went to a Village People concert!
Yes, they’re still alive, well, some of them at least and they didn’t miss a beat, although they were sucking down oxygen from small canisters between songs, but that’s understandable as the concert was in a town about 2,500m above sea level. The mood was electric, as everyone in the entire auditorium danced and sang to the encore performance of YMCA! It was a great night!
I did promise singing after all! So why haven’t I written the blow by blow account of building a business from scratch? Well for one, if I wrote a daily account of everything that happened, which I did to begin with, there would be lots of repetition, dull moments and swearing.
What’s my solution to this? The easy solution is that I’m going to hold off on doing the daily blog, or even a weekly blog of the saga of building a business and instead condense this down into a book. Oh crap, not another business book! Yeah… another business book, but hey, I’ll probably make it into an audio book so you can listen to the saga, rather than having to actually read it. It makes it easier to include singing in it as well.
In the book however, I won’t tell you what you should do in business. I’ll just be reflecting on my own experiences and from this I’ll let you decide what course of action you need to take for yourself. With everything in life, there are many ways to approach a problem. If for example I’d listened to all the advice I’ve been given about business over the past two years from all the many willing advice givers, I probably wouldn’t recognise my own business and it’d be a bastardised mess filled to the brim with other peoples’ ideas, goals and expectations. If I wanted that, I’d just work for public service.
Building a business is one of the most challenging, frustrating, yet rewarding things you can do and as such, the story deserves a lot more attention than a few blog posts and later in the year, it will start to take shape. In the meantime, I’ll just keep posting away about random things which excite me, annoy me or simply make me laugh.
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