System-bucker management

Before I set out on my current micro multinational (my clients span across continents now) adventure, I did a couple years consulting stint at $412 M Percept Group, a 360 degree entertainment, communications and media major.  While playing an in-house investment banker diligencing and advising on M&A deals, I had the privilege of closest access to quite a bit of cross cultural, multi-national operational teams spread across its divisions (Film Production, Mainstream Advertising, Media planning, Sports & Celebrity Management, Fashion & Lifestyle, Web Ads) right from CEO, down. 

Like in every large company, there was abundant top-down mediocrity.  Some divisional CEOs were absolute caricatures.  But there were occasional creative brilliance that flashed and I kept tracking them, befriending them in the process. I did learn a lot from them. Eventually, I sensed what was so unique about these creative powerhouses.  I can share with you the list of qualities that stood out. They-

         worked at their own pace, setting their own goals; 

        never break for lunch on the hour; take short work breaks.

         never worried `what others will think’  live with no signposts

         hardly had any airs about them; were simple to the core.

         were self-effacing; gave credit to every team member. 

But like Jack and Suzy Welch say in Business Week, “businesses aren’t museums.  You have to wield the occasional velvet hammer upon this non-conformist lot. Businesses exist not to showcase creative output but to capitalize on it. For that to happen, something has to give. And that something is the typical creative person’s underlying notion that he’s a free agent.”  Left to themselves, their disruptive pursuits will lead to organizational anarchy.  While it calls for no heavy handedness, an occasional reminder of authority will help them drink the enterprise Kool-Aid. 

I figure the trick to control these freaks is in tethering them to the stake while they upstart.  It was Vivek Paul (Ex-Wipro, currently partner at TPG) that gave this anecdote and it went like this –

“The first [lesson] I learned in the jungles of Bangalore, at an elephant camp. When you visit such a camp you see these gigantic elephants tethered with a small stake. I asked the trainer: ‘Why do they stay tethered when they could so easily pull up the stake?’  He told me: ‘Well, the elephant is tethered as a small calf; when it tries to pull up the stake, it learns it can’t do it … and it never tries again.’ That’s an amazing parable about how we always tend to underestimate ourselves. The lesson for me is: Don’t let self limitations hold you back.”

The lesson can wait. While managing creative devils that love to buck the system,  learn the art of tethering the calves.  Before taking up the hot seat, figure out the form of creative leadership that’s called for.

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