I’m not a football fan. But when I heard on the radio that Manchester United – requiring a draw to claim the Premiership title once more were behind at Blackburn I thought I’d turn the match on to see what was happening.
Just as I settled down with a sandwich to check the score, the Blackburn goalkeeper touched Hernandez, the Manchester striker and he, of course, went down like he’d been shot with an elephant gun form point blank range.
The referee had been unsighted by a mass of players between him and the incident and so jogged over to his assistant to consult before making a decision about whether this merited a penalty.
Before he could jog the 30 yards or so to the touchline, Manchester United players – many of them sprinting from their own half – had converged on the touch judge and were berating him in. Shouting in his face, intimidating him – the sight of Vidic and Ferdinand screaming at the official was genuinely shocking to someone who watches far more cricket and rugby than football. Not only was it entirely distasteful to watch, but the commentary team made no mention of behaviour which – if it happened in any other work place would warrant immediate dismissal. The penalty was given and Rooney scored, the close up of his angry celebration needing neither HD nor lip reading expertise to recognise the stream of invective directed at – presumably – Blackburn fans off camera behind the goal.
What I had witnessed open mouthed over Saturday lunchtime was a culture in action, a team culture which had infected the whole sport; a culture where disgraceful behaviour from players who represent the England team was barely worth a mention.
This started me thinking about the way in which cultures are developed in other teams and in other businesses. There is a similarity I think. I would argue that the behaviour of likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Rooney is tolerated because in other areas of their work they are peak performers. Their talent is such that a blind eye is turned when they act outside the normal boundaries of behaviour and in circumstances where even if they are technically not breaking the letter of the laws, they are hardly compliant with their spirit. Does this happen elsewhere?
In my experience it does. The compliance with responsible business practices or policies and procedures for how things should be done is not always enforced when someone is delivering the goods in a slightly unconventional way. A cavalier lack of regard for in house policies is ignored when targets are achieved and profits generated. The talented maverick – where blind eyes are turned to their excesses – is as much a feature of organisations as it is in sports teams.
But what impact does excusing the brightest and the best from following the same rules as the rest of us have on the organisational culture? On one level, it breeds more mavericks. The trouble is, not all of these me-too mavericks have the talent to match their unconventionality.
Unquestionably, it is easier to mimic the rule breaking, the corner cutting, bullying and objectionable behaviour than it is to apply oneself to learning how to deliver the goods. Before you know it, a culture is born.
When I run sessions with groups the discussion often turns to the role of line managers in supporting training and development. In many instances it is recognised as desirable but frankly impossible to guarantee. My advice usually goes along the lines of making coaching and support for training programmes a requirement, expressed through performance targets and measured through 360 feedback. Most of the time, this is met with a hollow chuckle and a wan smile. Occasionally I am told stories about behaviour which – while it is not as extreme as running 70 yards to stand over someone and shout in their face, is certainly somewhat less than good practice in the staff management field. “What happens to them?” I ask naively. “They get promoted,” comes the resigned response.
In short, in many organisations winning is everything and the only important characteristic in a senior leader is to achieve the numbers. Over time, the body count caused by the relentless pursuit of profits or performance targets is seen as a good thing, a sign of toughness, focus, commitment and single mindedness.
Many organisations talk about creating a learning culture where on the job coaching is a central activity in continuous improvement and building capacity. And yet few if any that I have come across reward and acknowledge those who do it – at least not in the same way as they do the super sales manager or the team leader who achieves great productivity from his or her team using methods we’d rather not think about.
And while the corporate equivalent of the champions medals are handed out to those who bully their way to short term success, break the rules to increase profits and fail to support every individual to reach their potential, then the organisation culture – rather like Premiership football – will always be skewed towards ‘win at all costs’.
Those at the pinnacle of any organisation or industry are role models for those who aspire to progress – whether they like it or not. When we are promoting and rewarding those who achieve in our own organisations, are we sure they are appropriate role models? If my children were interested in football, I certainly wouldn’t want them modelling themselves on the players I saw on Saturday. If I were in an organisation, there are a few senior leaders who I would definitely not want young managers and aspiring leaders to model themselves on. The trouble is, while they continue to be promoted to the top, my advice is ignored. How can you argue against the corporate equivalent of the 19th Premiership title?
I doubt Sir Alex Ferguson will take a stand against the boorishness of his central defenders. But we can take a stand. As HR and L&D professionals, we have to use our influence to ensure that senior leaders and those promoted to those positions do act as positive role models and that their ability to model the very best in management practice is a significant determinant in whether they are put in those roles in the first place.