I was never much good at people management
"Nothing will earth your magnificent, socially entrepreneurial vision than the complex, bloody minded, sometimes brilliant but too often mediocre other mammals you will employ in your business..."
Liam Black celebrates the joys of recruitment and leadership in the second of his Dear Jude letters
Dear Jude –
Ah yes, recruiting and employing people. The joy, the fun, the laughs. Not.
Nothing will earth your magnificent, socially entrepreneurial vision than the complex, bloody minded, inconsistent, sometimes brilliant but too often pretty mediocre other mammals you will employ in your business.
This reality is the number one issue with all the leaders I have mentored (after they’ve stopped crying about money).
I was never much good at people management. I found 90% of it a huge pain in the backside. Seriously, I’d rather sit through another speech about John Bird’s tough childhood than do another single appraisal. How many hours of my short time on this planet have been wasted dancing round the handbags when all that needs to be said is:
"Look – you're rubbish. I know it. Your team knows it. You in your heart of hearts know it. The door's the wooden thing in the wall. Close it behind you please."
I assumed that if you paid someone to do a job they would just get on with it and do their best and ask for help when they need it… (Yeah, I know.)
Over the years I have recruited hundreds of people and it's the area where I have made my biggest mistakes. Fewer than 10% of the people I've had under my leadership at senior management levels I fully trusted or have had that rare combination of commercial nouse and passion for the mission and really helped me drive the enterprise forward. 80% did their jobs well enough, didn’t get into trouble, were okay, blah blah. The other 10% were the cultural terrorists and adroit system players who added diddlysquat.
I'm embarrassed to tell you how much cash I've dished out to just get rid of people. It’s well into six figures (with a 2 at the beginning). I’ve been a great earner for lawyers. One of the horrible truths is that the people who have walked away with the most money from the social businesses unlucky enough to have me at the head are the very people who deserve least. In fact what they'd deserved was kick in the arse. I am completely open to the fact that this says more about my leadership than it does the people I led. Manchester, Liverpool and London are full of former co-workers who hate my guts. Some no doubt have good reason.
There is much horseshit spoken about recruitment. The cliché is "recruit for attitude, train for skill". Get the right set of values and work ethic and you can teach the rest. I agree with that and it is also true often I have indeed got people with attitude. The attitude of an eejit that is.
Take your time when recruiting. For top jobs which carry big responsibility for money and culture make sure you are closely involved. Try and meet referees face to face. Look ‘em in the eye and It's much harder for them to lie about the nutter they are delighted that’s leaving them for you. And for God’s sake make sure you use the probationary period rigorously and pull the trigger before it becomes too costly and painful. And, just as in matters of the heart, when considering the time and energy involved in a senior hire, a "don't know" is a "no".
In short, hire slowly, get rid quickly.
In a private company it is easer to judge performance. You either are bringing home the bacon – or you are not. No amount of obfuscation can hide consistently missed sales/profit targets.
In the social enterprise environment there are always lots of excuses for bad performance, why it's someone else's fault – funders, those horrible people in the town hall or Cabinet Office, those ungrateful youngsters who just don't want to get a job... And when you as a leader are really busy – or you’re out pontificating about changing the world – it is so easy to miss the dull but crucially important stuff that businesses are made of, or to let mediocre management off the hook because you just aren’t around enough to nail it.
Many social entrepreneurs are activists by background and instinct. They fall into leadership roles wholly unsuitable for them and the organisations they have created to evidence the change they want to see in the world. Many social enterprises get to certain scale and impact and then get stuck. This is in no small part due to the shortcomings of founders who should leave and allow someone with get to scale experience.
Start thinking now Jude if being a CEO of a large organisation is really what you want to do long term. Maybe you’re a starter not a see-it-througher. Fine but be honest about that. Getting bored or resentful at the wheel ends only in one place. So, start thinking about what the end could look like – right at the beginning.