If there’s one signature intervention that characterises how we work at Vogel Wakefield, it is the diagnostic enquiry into what’s going on in an organisation. This draws on skills developed over the course of our careers in journalism, strategy and coaching – and, in my case, my epistemological formation as a sociologist.
Put simply, it entails getting lots of people to talk to us about their working lives. And trying to understand what it is they need to talk about together that they’re not discussing. Many of our engagements begin this way – particularly when a team or organisation is stuck in some way, which is usually when they turn to consultants.
Some years ago, I was happy to make the acquaintance of Valerie Iles, a leadership consultant whose domain is healthcare. Like me, she brings an interest in mindfulness. But she has a great ability to draw on a diverse range of other ideas. This year, she held a seminar to hand over her body of thinking. I was already running with it. But, in the months since, I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of her articles.
One that stands out is Valerie’s admonishment against reaching for abstract nouns. This is not the usual tirade against meaningless management coinages but a philosophical challenge to how leaders conceive their strategies.
Book review: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein
I read The Trauma of Everyday Life to inform my thinking for an event I am helping to organise on trauma in coaching. I hadn’t appreciated before I read the book just how much of a Buddhist take on the subject it would represent. It turns out Mark Epstein, a New York-based psychiatrist, is an established writer on Buddhism and its intersection with psychotherapy. He provides here a psychotherapeutic biography of the Buddha: how the Buddha’s own traumas informed his enlightenment and how this, in turn, shines a light on how best we can cope with difficulty in our lives. This is perhaps more interesting to me than a straight psychotherapeutic discussion. Though no Buddhist, I practice mindfulness. As a matter of philosophical disposition, I find the possibilities it holds out for caring for oneself more appealing than the path that working with an expert therapist offers.
Epstein adopts a broader and looser interpretation of trauma than one normally encounters in psychotherapeutic discussion. He distinguishes between the conventional view of trauma, as confronting a death or serious injury, and developmental trauma, when emotional pain cannot be held. Sometimes, these might converge – for example, Epstein refers to the Buddha’s own developmental emotional pain resulting from the death in his infancy of his mother. But Epstein also views the common difficulties of life through the lens of trauma and refers to the pre-traumatic stress with which we experience the inevitability of death.
Earlier this year, I attended a talk at the RSA by Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Laloux was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped after reading his book. But what has stayed with me also was a throwaway comment by Matthew Taylor, chairman of the RSA and former advisor to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Reflecting on the paucity of organisational life, Matthew observed that we need a politics of organisation. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what we need and, at last, people are beginning to get it.
The politics of organisation was, of course, one of many absences in the General Election campaign. One of the successes of three decades of neo-liberalism is that what happens inside organisations has been ruled out of court for politicians. But at the same time, organisations – particularly private corporations – have become increasingly central to how our society is, well, organised. Most of us work in large organisations to earn our living and, with the hollowing out of the state, depend on them for the delivery of our public services. And what is left of life is increasingly mediated by the likes of banks that are too big to fail, food retailers whose chains extend from the convenience shop to the out-of-town megastore, and global internet businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. How we experience them as employees and consumers and how they impact on society in general are among the most significant influences on our lives.
The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.
Last night, I attended a stirring call on the coaching profession to wake up and recast its responsibilities in relation to a world that is messed up and in crisis. The call was made by Aboodi Shabi, who one might reasonably describe as a leader of the coaching profession in the UK. Courtesy of a platform with the London Coaching Group, he extemporised on themes I have advocated myself, most recently in my presentation to APECS. But Aboodi made the case with a passion and bluntness that challenged me to stand up for this agenda with much greater clarity. A theme of the evening was how coaching could “come out” as a profession that engages with society’s problems. Aboodi’s message resonated with a good proportion of his audience, although it also provoked fear and dismissal among a vociferous minority.
Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy is not only a cracking read but a psychological study in the gathering courage of a whistleblower in an organisation gone to bad.
It tells the story of the Dreyfus affair – the wrongful conviction and incarceration for spying of a Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. It is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, a spy chief who is both a party to the downfall of Dreyfus and a prime mover in the uncovering of Dreyfus’s framing by the military establishment.
Much of the power of the narrative derives from the fact that Picquart is a reluctant whistleblower. The youngest colonel in the army, he has a great career ahead of him. Moreover, he shares the casual anti-semitism of his age and has no great sympathy for Dreyfus. Nonetheless, when he discovers evidence that implicates a different officer, Esterhazy, in the spying for which Dreyfus was blamed, he cannot ignore the injustice and assumes his senior officers will think likewise.
From today, Valoro becomes Vogel Wakefield, the counter-consultancy. We see this as more than a change of name. We’ve been in business for nearly three years now and we have a much better appreciation than when we started of how we add value for our clients.
When we founded the business, we were spent some considerable time defining our company and our distinctive approach. In retrospect, this was more useful to us as partners than it was to customers. It helped us clarify the common ground that enabled us to work together. But all our clients wanted to know was who we were.
In fact, one executive, demonstrating refreshing plain-speaking, told us the Valoro thing wasn’t making much sense. “You’re Mark and Martin, aren’t you?” he said.
Book review: The Case for Working with Your Hands, by Matthew Crawford
There’s an old joke about a banker whose plumber charged him £250 for a two-minute job to fix a leaking tap. “I don’t earn that kind of money in the City!” the banker told the plumber. “Yeah!” replied the plumber, “I didn’t either. That’s why I switched to plumbing.”
The joke spoke to a pervading anxiety that the financial rewards of white collar work may be meagre compensation for the costs it exacts. Now, along comes Matthew Crawford to rub salt in the wound with his thesis that the manual trades may also be more intrinsically rewarding.
A theatre won funding to improve its engagement with disadvantaged groups. It approached the challenge as the chance to spread the word about its work. But it discovered that to get the target groups through the doors, the work would need to change. What the theatre was doing from day to day turned out to be irrelevant to a section of the community it was meant to serve. This is an example of the gap that can occur between the way an organisation behaves compared to its avowed mission, one that provides the sense of purpose from a shared understanding among everyone who works in a company.