Sunday, March 16, 2014

Three Chairs for Charles Handy

Charles holding Questions of Truth
(I'll replace this with photos of the
event when I get them).
To Cambridge on Tuesday where we had arranged for our friend Charles Handy to come and talk to the students at the Judge Institute. Charles decided to use a "three chairs" format whereby he sat with a chair either side of him. I began by sitting on his left and asking him some questions to which he responded, then the next questioner would sit in the empty chair and the previous person would leave, who would in their turn be displaced by the next questioner coming to sit in the now-empty chair etc..
The Director of the Business School came to welcome him at the beginning and point out that Charles had played a seminal role in the creation of the school.

I started by recalling his famous talk "What is a company for?" and asking how he now saw this question. He thought that the mischief stretched back to the US case of Dodge vs Ford and then Mike Jensen's 1976 article about the Management being the Agents of the shareholders. But of course Companies are their own legal entities and are not simply the collection of the shareholders. The one major result seems to Daughter, who was next up, asked him about role-playing in work and life. Charles thinks that social media and other similar developments means that the masks people wear in work are increasingly see-through. A friend of his did "take your daughter to work" and his daughter said to her father afterwards "but you aren't like that at all."  It took Charles 10 years to stop trying to be somebody else.

Charles thinks, rightly, that business schools should be challenging business models and encouraging critical thinking rather than simply teaching a load of established techniques.  People need to set time aside for critical reflection. You need people you can trust to talk to about problems. Sabbaticals are also a very good idea. One of his most successful friends in business takes 8-9 weeks a year off work to think and read.

A book Charles commends called The Puritan Gift about the history of US Business makes the point that historically US businesses were run by people who really knew their businesses. The idea of the generalist manager is dangerous. Learn your business. He once asked a great actor what the key was to great acting and he said paying attention - to people, the audience and what you are doing.

I wish I had time to blog more about this fascinating dialogue (but the fact that this post is 5 days after the event tells its own story). The Judge then hosted a small dinner where we and a few students also had the benefit of a serious and deep discussion with Charles and Liz, touching on roles, gender issues, purpose in careers and many other things besides.

A great privilege and a great evening.

PS my piece about strategic leadership in Harvard Business Review China has been published and is now also on their website.  It is currently the No 1 article in their "column" section and seems to be the 5th most read article on their website.  And FWIW Questions of Truth is No 28 on Nature and Existence of God and #71 in Science and Religion.

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