Roles and People

I am contradicting myself. I sat through a business meeting only a few days back and proclaimed that instead of trying to fit people into roles, we should look at roles first and then find people, recruit from outside if necessary. That made perfect sense, and sounded nice. Everyone around the table agreed – as if this is quite obvious – and I felt good because I sounded business-like.

However, reflecting on this over the next few days, the statement does not appear as obvious as it did initially. The first problem is that the roles don’t exist but people do. However much we talk about competencies and job descriptions, that’s nothing other than a perception – a bunch of assumptions made by people other than the person doing the job about what doing the job means. Okay, I know about those soft scientific techniques of asking people around what their job needs, and creating the competency maps, but, indeed, people say what they think the job needs but not what they do.

The problem with management is that it pretends to be a science. It is therefore good to sound business-like and present the cut-and-dry common sense formulations as my statement in the aforesaid business meeting represented. But, on ground, it is never the same. For all the talk of professional management, most owners’ sons and daughters become owners, chairpersons and CEOs. Think James Murdoch, and unless you believe in the marvel of genes carrying management wisdom, you will feel that roles-versus-people stuff does not apply at the top.

I am arguing that what’s alright at the top is actually alright anywhere else. Given time and some basic attributes – shall we call this attitude – anyone can grow into any role. In fact, there is no other way, because no one really knows what the future holds. Someone said – don’t attempt to forecast, particularly the future – and he was absolutely right. This is now accepted management wisdom, and is factored into every strategy meeting. However, the accepted wisdom about roles is that they are set in stone – and this is not any more intelligent than the talk about ‘dream’ man or woman. In fact, a recruitment exercise in a company may as well be compared with Wayne Brady’s rather entertaining search for a bride in the The List (2007), where he ended up, predictably, settling with someone not possessing any of the two dozen ‘must have’ attributes that he had on the list.

In fact, search firms are already blaming the competency fetish for the high level of unemployment in the developed economies. It is also counter-intuitive that while the people are being told to be flexible, the companies are increasingly committing themselves to narrower job requirements and search for perfect candidates. And, on top, I shall argue that such ‘perfectionism’, committed in the name of management as a science, also undermines the business as a social organization, and promote elitism and disconnection from the society, which is necessarily a collection of imperfect individuals. Finally, since it is accepted wisdom that the governments should be run like companies, the temptation to succumb into social engineering, not unlike Hitler’s quest for the perfect Aryan man, is all too great.

In the end, I shall rather treat the people I have around me – colleagues and friends – as an indispensable part of the company, as long as they are pulling along. They may be imperfect, but they are there. It is worth exploring their strengths and give them the opportunities to do and learn, even if that takes a little while longer and a few more mistakes have to be endured. Some people will see this as a perfect recipe for slack, but at the same time, I can argue, this is possibly the only way to build a humane and sustainable organization. I shall say this is one thing business organizations should learn from good not-for-profit, which, in most cases, start with people first. I have heard so many times that businesses can only survive through the commitment and passion of its people and their ability to pull together at uncertain times like this; I don’t see that to be possible in a company of perfect strangers.


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