Thank you to all those companies that got it wrong

I’m grateful for the experience of having worked with the organisations which struggled with their performance and lack of leadership.

Can we learn from people who don’t know what they’re doing as well as from people who do?

In the same way that we learn more from failure than success, is it more valuable to peer at the workings of dysfunctional companies than the smoothly oiled machinery of successful and happy ones?

I’ve been lucky to have experienced both in my career.

When the bad makes you truly appreciate the good

I’ve worked in or with both high performing organisations and toxic ones. And while I thoroughly enjoyed being part of those perfectly oiled organisations, I only realised how prized those experiences were after spending time in the truly dysfunctional businesses.

In fact I can think of two organisations I’ve interacted with that had such abysmal standards of dysfunction that I feel they could be set as an experiential internship opportunity. “Business students, see how it feels when the very basic principles of leadership and management are not implemented! You’ll thank us for it later!” And I was grateful, once I’d understood what was going on.

But there’s another big lesson here, or at least there was for me — the differences between intellectual and experiential learning.

Experience is everything

Before I engaged with these organisations I’d read articles about running companies that would frequently make me go: “Duh! Obvious”. For example, of course as a decision-maker you should abide by the same rules as the employees.



Yet only when I experienced what it’s like to actually suffer from double standards did I truly appreciate how much care needs to be given to such principles, and how ignoring them has a direct impact on productivity, through gossip, toxic atmosphere, employee disengagement, lack of loyalty or commitment… even revenge. (Incidentally the power of experiential learning is something the Leadership Trust passionately believes in.)

It was when I saw — and felt — the direct causal relationship between specific behaviours and their consequences that it really dawned on me: we have a duty to act with the highest leadership standards.

It should be a reflex — cherished and engrained — to constantly question how we interact with others, the impact we have on those around us, how we make our decisions and why certain things make us over-react.

I don’t know what I want but I know what I don’t want

Now I’m in the very fortunate position of being able to pick and choose. Whilst I am not totally convinced yet what the ideal company looks like, and I want to remain open to new ideas and opportunities, I know with an unwavering certainty what I don’t want the companies I run to be. Ultimately my team and I will be creating our own new and unique environment, and it will be shaped by all the lessons we’ve learned — by what we don’t want to look like as much as what we do.

So in short, when it comes to the physiognomy of the perfect company, I love the don’t know in keeping possibilities open but I love knowing what I don’t want.


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