Saturday 6 March 2021

All Colonels

I had a real conversation last week with, like, a person rather than the grainy moving image of a person. It was legit because it was generating uplifting broadcast fodder to stop the People of Lockdown going postal. We talked a bit about working and [I R Retire!] not working and Chris cited a story he'd seen recently on BBC, about Greg Jackson who runs a £1billion company without an HR department! Jackson is a serial ideas-bloke entrepreneur but the seminal lesson in management came when he was in his 20s. He was new to the job but tried to helpfully manage one of the key effectives in the company.  The other party held up her hand until . . . "She finished the call, like a consummate professional, and she turned to me and said: 'Greg, I bring up two boys and a husband on the poxy wage this company pays. If I can do that, you can be pretty sure I can do anything this company wants from me. And by the way Greg, I was here before you were here and I'll be here after you have gone. I love the company more than you do, so you never need to tell me what to do.'"

I take a couple of things from that anecdote. a) Some people are not driven only by money; they have an internal clock for value, self-worth and standards; they do their job well because they can do it no other way. b) Management often gets in the way of productive work.

I had a life-time in academic science and was often poorly managed. Far too much time was spent in meetings to generate Learning Outcomes [always always using Bloom's Taxonomy] for academic courses and none spent obliging me to become a more thoughtful, creative, inspiring teacher. I went to several CPD workshops: courses on statistics, programming and grant-writing but these were voluntary, even if carried out on company time. Through the crappy partition walls I'd often ear-wig on appalling teaching practice in the room next door: hectoring, exasperated, monotonous.

Promotion in academic circles takes you further from coal-face-time with students and actual scientific research - like with test-tubes and Petri dishes - and more into a managerial role. I've never heard of any senior academics being mentored for better budget control, HR or time management. All of which are essential management skills to get the best from the available resources. One of the places I started working had recently promoted their most effective researcher to be Head of Department. Like many highly effective scientists, this person was far better at coaxing life from a stone than interacting with people. They were hopeless dealing with, say, The Viper, a sarcastic, self-important, undermining bully; or a demarcation dispute between lecturers and technicians; or a really distressed, recently orphaned, student. They should have stayed at the bench but promotion carried a bit more money, considerably more prestige, and a bigger office with, like, a window.

A few years later, a management restructure created a Head of School to interface between HoDs and the {CEO, CFO, VPthis, VPthat cabinet} which ran the institution. The former HoD applied and was duly transfigured into HoS with the vital role of managing two [that's 2] subservient HoDs. Supervising two presumably competent people is not a full time job, so the working week was filled with meetings of important committees and exactly duplicating, not very well, the work of the HoDs.

Take travel. If I needed to go elsewhere on company business or on CPD, I could claim travel expenses. That might be a train ticket, mileage for the car if trains went the wrong way, a per diem, and/or overnight accommodation if essential. Once, I took two students to a conference of interest in Dublin. I filled in The Green Form to get prior approval and claimed mileage for the car, essentially giving a free ride to the two impoverished students. The Form was signed by my HoD, counter-signed by our HoS and forwarded to Finance for approval by the CFO. Many weeks later, The Form came back stamped DISALLOWED because I drove to Dublin rather than taking the train. That's fair enough, but it was galling that neither the HoS nor the HoD paid sufficient attention to doing their job well to flag the problem before the event when it could have been remediated. And WTF is it about a system that can't trust anyone to make a honest claim for their out of pocket expenses and, worse, can't trust the HoD to give appro for any such claim? Lack of trust engenders lack of trust-worthiness.

So many managers all washing the linen that has just been laundered by a subordinate. So big their salary, so mighty their pension prospects. I written before about how often hopeless these people are when the shit hits the fan Frrrrrp! and some actual management is required. I've written about wholly disfunctional management, but also management which fell apart when required to manage.

I'll finish with a graphic image seeded in my mind by my favorite talking-walker. In the Before Times, I'd meet this fellow on the lane when he was mitching off from his day job to watch larks ascending on the upland heath above us on the hill. The previous weekend to one such encounter, he'd attended an on-farm CPD meeting in the next county. Whatever they were being shown cannot of been so interesting because he started idly to calculate the suit-to-effective ratio. There was an actual farmer, with mud on his jeans and shit on his watch-cap, wrestling with some piece of demonstration machinery and two more farmers watching with empathy and attention. Then there were a dozen fonctionnaires in new wellingtons and clean trousers: the men [yes, all men; and yes, all on expenses] out for the day from their offices at Teagasc, Coillte, DAFF, IFA, the CoCo, Quango-X, Bord Bia, RELAY, Bord na Mona. My informant estimated that the suits were sucking at the government teat to the tune of €500,000 /yr, while farmer, a grown up with 40 years experience, was making less than a trainee teacher.

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