I met the old man at a presentation. I was a brand consultant for a large corporate project and the client insisted I sit on a panel to select marketing agencies. The distinguished gentleman; old enough to be my father, represented an agency in Nigeria.
As he stepped in for the presentation, I saw the expression on the faces of the 20-something year olds, on the client’s side. They were bright-eyed top shots from Ivy League Universities, recruited to revitalise the decades-old institution. I heard the hushed sniggers as they wondered what this “old papa” was doing there. “Doesn’t he have staff capable of running through a PowerPoint?”
Afterwards, I spent some time with the gentleman. I thanked him for honouring us with his presence, but remarked that I would have expected him to show up only at a high level Board presentation. I saw a flash of pain shoot across his face as he told me his story.
He had been one of the trailblazers in his industry; painstakingly building a company from scratch for over 30 years. Unfortunately, he came from the school of thought where staff were not to be trusted. So, he withheld responsibility from them. Staff couldn’t sign checks without his endorsement. They couldn’t prepare proposals without his input. When he traveled, work almost ground to a halt, as his staff couldn’t make promises to clients without his say so.
The company never built structures and the corporate purse became an extension of his bank account. Staff soon got wise and began to use the organisation for their private ends too. They collected kickbacks and misstated invoices. This made the MD even more paranoid about control. The brilliant ones among them, soon left to work for competitors after he had trained them. In response, he stopped sending his staff for foreign courses.
A decade later, he recognised his folly and tried to change. He brought in new staff. But, he found it difficult to relate to the younger generation. They didn’t seem to think like he did, or to relate to some of the good values he tried to instill. Though he found some really intelligent managers but, while they were proficient at work, they didn’t appreciate the finer points of business politics. His managers would go for meetings, but wouldn’t spend extra time talking about current affairs or inquiring about the families of those they were meeting. They didn’t forge social connections. They weren’t interested in taking up the company’s offer to join social clubs and rarely took clients out to lunch. They didn’t study the power dynamics in companies or government institutions. They didn’t identify who could be a useful ally or font of information – whether a receptionist or an Executive Director.
Now he was tired of trying, he said. He didn’t expect the company to live on for long, after him. His sons had already made it clear they wouldn’t return to Nigeria after their Master’s Degrees abroad. His only goal now was to help as many young managers as possible to learn from his mistakes. He would write a book or two. He would also work for a few more years to ensure his wife never suffered, should he die before her.
I withdrew from the discussion, sober and reflective. I thought about how paradigms shaped the different aspects of our lives – business, relationships, governance and religion. I wondered how many of us are able to forge completely new paths that buck tradition. How many of us would end up like the old man instead?How many of us are able to forge completely new paths that buck tradition? Click To Tweet