This blog is for anyone in management (and for high-flying employees)
As I watched the Prime Minister’s fraught daily press briefing yesterday in which he was questioned relentlessly about his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, I was reminded of three key management lessons I have learned over the last thirty-something years.
The Cummingsgate facts, as everybody in the UK knows, are that at the end of March 2020, at the height of the nationwide lock down, Mr Cummings drove 264 miles from London to County Durham in the North East of England with his wife and four-year-old child. His wife had COVID_19 symptoms and, Mr Cummings says, he feared that if he also got sick, the child could not be cared for properly. So, he and his family made the journey in order to stay with relatives who would be on hand to help.
In “normal” times this would be perfectly understandable. But these weren’t normal times. With the entire nation in full, total lock down, Mr Cummings’ trip was, on the face of it, a flagrant breach of the Government’s rule that the entire country was to “Stay Home”.
That wasn’t all. According to various witnesses, Mr Cummings was seen out and about around Durham two weeks later. One witness reported him to the police. The situation was exacerbated because Mr Cummings was one of the architects of the lock down rules. If anyone should have known the rules, he should.
Many UK citizens are outraged and believe he should lose his job. The accusation is of hypocrisy: one rule for us, another for them. Significantly, even his own MPs took to the airwaves. Here’s one example:
In a rare show of solidarity, the Daily Mail and The Guardian are in agreement:
But at yesterday’s daily briefing, the Prime Minister fully backed his adviser, saying
“I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives.”
Immediately afterwards, Twitter blew a fuse. In the firestorm, even the UK Civil Service tweeted its outrage (subsequently deleted).
There is no doubt that Cummingsgate represents a stern test of the PM’s authority and it remains to be seen whether it will blow over, with Mr Cummings keeping his job. Many others have walked for far less.
The reason it’s such a big deal is that maybe the general population will take it as licence to flout the Stay Home rules. That in turn may reverse all that has been achieved so far in the battle to contain the virus.
Back to the Three Lessons:
Lesson One – Toxic Talent is always Trouble
Adrian was super-smart. It was obvious the first time I met him. He was also strategic and visionary, and he was highly dependable; he always got the job done with minimum fuss and maximum skill. He latched on to new concepts more quickly than the rest of the room, and his ability to sift through the fine detail on almost any issue, was extraordinary. In fact, he was one of the most capable professionals I have ever met.
There was just one problem. Adrian could also be very difficult to work with. He managed upwards superbly (his line managers consistently scored him 5/5) but most people who worked for him lived in fear of his temper and sarcastic tongue. One of his team had to take time off and needed counselling. The biggest issue with Adrian was that he did not think the rules applied to him. From the simple and basic to the more nuanced, rules simply were not written with him in mind. Even rules he had had a hand in making. They were all there to be broken or ignored.
Adrian was, in the jargon, Toxic Talent – every organisation’s nightmare. The problem with Toxic Talent employees is that management comes to rely heavily on them. Over time, TT employees morph into an essential component within the firm’s operating system. They are the best sales guys, they generate more ideas, more revenue, more traction, more brand value, more IP, more client relationships, than everyone else. And that’s the challenge. Despite the carnage and chaos they cause, it becomes almost impossible to let them go. Even when it is blindingly obvious to everyone that the organisation needs to part company with them, senior management just cannot wield the axe and will find every excuse in the book to retain them.
“Adrian’s misunderstood.” “His heart’s in the right place.” “He’s got a lot on his plate.” “Just give him a bit of space.” “If he does it again, let me know.” “Being controversial and breaking the rules is how he makes things change.” “He’s got amazing instinct.”
And so on.
Eventually, often, TT employees rise to the very highest echelons of the firm. They’re very senior, highly influential and well paid. When that happens, you have got a big problem.
This seems to be where the PM finds himself.
Even so, some senior Conservatives are baffled that the prime minister has been willing to lose so much political capital to retain Mr Cummings, even as the number of MPs calling for his resignation has grown. One minister said “it’s absolutely bizarre. Most of the cabinet wouldn’t receive the kind of backing he has when he has obviously broken the rules.” Another member of the government predicted: “I think they will brazen it out. He’s just too important to the PM. Without Cummings, who would run the show?”Financial Times – Johnson stays loyal to man who helped him into Number 10 (25 May 2020)
Lesson Two – Everyone is Replaceable
In 1995, NatWest Capital Markets was a derivatives powerhouse. We won more swaps and options business than any other investment bank in the UK. To calculate the prices of some of our more complex option transactions, we needed heavy-duty pricing models. We needed these to assess, based on predicted or expected market movements, the risks associated with any given transaction. The derivatives market had only just taken off and a lot of the transactions we were pricing were unique and untested.
That meant the risk models we relied upon were embryonic at best. This was tricky. If the model made wrong assumptions, the bank could easily lose several million dollars – just because it had not priced the trade properly. And as every transaction was competitive and against the clock, we were pricing complex options in a high-stress environment with no room for error.
Risk modelling back then was a new super-science with a small mathematical elite building the models.
One of these guys was Ravi. A simply brilliant mathematician, Ravi graduated first in his mathematics degree from the finest University in India. He was the very best; he was Top Gun. Ravi wrote all our pricing models and, without him, we were flying blind. Ravi’s desk was permanently covered in sheets and sheets of A4 paper, each sheet itself covered in hundreds of complex handwritten mathematical equations. In the Summer of ’95, Ravi was probably the most sought-after person on the trading floor.
And then, one day, out of the blue, Ravi resigned to go to UBS. It wasn’t, he said, about getting paid more; it was just going to be more interesting. When we heard the news, we all froze. There was a huge, complicated new option transaction that needed pricing and, without Ravi and his Hawking-level calculations, we were not in a position to quote a price with any confidence. Ravi’s leaving was quite simply the end of the world as we knew it. Game over. A disaster.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. Ravi was soon replaced by Jean-Louis Bernard. As it happened, JLB (as he was universally known) had graduated from the finest University in Paris (l’Ecole polytechnique) and was just as good as Ravi. In fact, there were aspects of JLB that were even better! JLB was a phenomenal manager, a superb communicator, and, unlike Ravi, he taught other people his maths kung-fu and didn’t keep everything in his head.
Although it was a myth, we had all thought Ravi was indispensable. We could not imagine life without him.
That is where the PM is today. He simply cannot imagine life without Ravi and has burnt all his political capital to keep him.
The Lesson I learnt that summer is that everyone is replaceable. Everyone. Even the genius who masterminded Vote Leave and the PM’s stunning success at the last General Election.
Lesson Three – If you’re a Chess Grandmaster, Stay Alert!
Being a chess grandmaster must be intoxicating. You’re always one step ahead of the guy sitting opposite. You can see how a game is likely to play out when it’s still opaque to your opponent. You’re a master tactician. You play the Najdorf Variation of the Sicillian Defence (5…a6), but that’s just a decoy. Your real plan lies elsewhere on the board. Like the Professor in the Netflix series Money Heist, you’ve thought everything through in far more detail than everyone else. You’re the best and you know it.
But, every now and then, you trip up. You’re so busy pondering your moves in the online chess game that you leave your rucksack on the train with highly confidential papers in it. You forget to lock the side door of your house when you go on vacation. You go home leaving your laptop unlocked on your desk at work when you rush out of the door on a Friday evening.
It is the small stuff that trips you up. Sometimes with major consequences.
And so, whilst you don’t put a foot wrong over the General Election; though you secure an unlikely and stunning victory against the odds for all Brexiteers; and despite the fact you are constantly winning unwinnable chess games on the global stage, and writing your name in the history books, you take a reckless trip across the country that you never should have taken. The ex-Durham police chief, Mike Barton told the Guardian:
It is clear he has broken the rules. It could not be clearer. I cannot think of a worse example of a breach of the lockdown rules.Mike Barton – former chief constable of Durham police
The rules said you couldn’t go, but you helped write those rules and, anyway, you know rules don’t apply to you. Also, of course, you are indispensable to the highest office in the land. Finally, you literally do not care what anyone will think if they find out.
So, what are you going to do? You’re going to make the trip, of course. And maybe more than once if you feel like it. Yes, you’ll drive right across the country at the height of Lockdown. Why? Because you can.
If you are running any organisation (corporation, not-for-profit or government) and you haven’t learnt Lesson One (Toxic Talent is always Trouble) and Lesson Two (Everyone is Replaceable), sooner or later you will find yourself caught in an impossible situation. You need to, and want to, do the right thing, but you cannot. Your brain won’t let you.
You may extract yourself once, maybe twice. But eventually, the Doublethink will be the ruin of you. Your reputation and everything you’ve worked so hard to build, will go up in smoke. You may even bring the whole organisation to its knees. You will certainly expend a huge and unnecessary amount of personal capital trying to contain things as they spiral out of control.
Footnote: If you’re talented, high flying, indispensable to your organisation, a strategic grand master, BUT you’re also controversial and difficult, believing the rules don’t apply to you, remember Rule Three: Stay Alert! For it will be something small you overlooked that finally brings you down.