Charles Handy: Righting management wrongs; Britain’s best-known business guru believes modern companies damage personal relationships


April 14, 2013 4:50 pm

Charles Handy: righting management wrongs
By Andrew Hill

Portfolio careers, the rise of the home-worker, the spread of outsourcing, the dangers of an obsession with shareholder value. Charles Handy was talking about these ideas two decades ago. At the time they sounded radical, now they are commonplace. At 80, he ought to be content.

Yet, from his armchair in front of the fire, overlooking the garden of his flat in a prosperous part of Putney, southwest London, the management writer and self-described social philosopher sounds gloomy. “I am seriously worried that the rather frenetic atmosphere in some organisations. . . . is really damaging relationships at home,” he says.

In a lecture on Monday night for Relate, the UK relationship counselling service, he will take employers to task for setting a breakneck pace for their staff. He will also urge individuals, specifically couples, to reformulate the unspoken contract with their employers, and with each other, at critical phases of their lives.That the octogenarian thinker is still addressing such problems is a sign something went wrong with his more optimistic vision of how the workplace and its occupants would evolve. In the 1980s and 1990s, he foresaw a world of flexible working and mutual trust that would free employers and employees from organisations he likened to “prisons for the human soul”. His provocative ideas, lucid style and use of striking images, such as the “shamrock organisation” to describe the combination of core employees, contractors and part-timers that make up the modern workforce, turned him into Britain’s first and best-known “management guru”.

Twenty years on, he points out that employees on full-time contracts are now in a minority, as he predicted, but that against his best expectations, “the fragmentation of the workplace and, to a degree, of family life is. . . creating worse standards of living for most people”.

The CV

 Born: 1932 in Kildare, Ireland
 Education: 1956 graduates from Oriel College, Oxford university, in classics, history and philosophy
● Career: Joins Shell International, where he works as a marketing executive, economist and management educator
● 1965 Joins MIT Sloan School of Management
● 1967 Returns to the UK to run the only Sloan programme outside the US, at London Business School
● 1972 Becomes a full professor specialising in managerial psychology
● 1981 Leaves LBS to focus on freelance writing and speaking engagements
● 1987-89 Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts
● Key books: 
● 1978 Gods of Management
● 1989 The Age of Unreason 
● 1994 The Empty Raincoat 
● 2001 The Elephant and the Flea
● 2006 Myself and Other More Important Matters 
● Interests and family:Together with his wife, Elizabeth, a portrait photographer, he has produced books profiling notable figures, including The New Alchemists and The New Philanthropists

Mr Handy did warn there was a dark side to his forecasts. In The Age of Unreason (1989), he said there was a risk the world could develop into “a collection of private courts and courtiers”. Six years later, The Empty Raincoat (published as The Age of Paradox in the US) was his attempt to make sense of the paradoxes of economic progress. In the book he acknowledged that he had underestimated the confusion and distress provoked by the changes that excited him.

But he says now that he “didn’t realise how greedy organisations were going to be” in their demands on workers’ time. Those companies that “think of their key people as assets are mistaken, because assets are things that you work to death. They are talents, and talents are a thing you nurture very carefully, like plants”.

Vital to Mr Handy’s idea of how companies should cultivate their employees is that they trust them to correct their own course, a conviction based on his own experience as a naive but enthusiastic Shell executive operating in the distant jungles of Borneo in the late 1950s. He had to deal with the consequences of his own blunders. But he points out that modern communications make it hard for leaders to resist the temptation to control everything from the centre. Today’s managers, with their dashboards of data, feel more like aircraft pilots or technicians in a power station. “One thing flashes red and you jump to it,” he says. “And so it’s very difficult for people to be allowed to make mistakes without being hauled over the coals, and that erodes creativity and experiment.”

Mr Handy takes aim, for instance, at Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary, for his attempts to “create more independent schools and then tell them exactly what to do. What the hell does this mean?” He is also surprisingly fierce – even for a champion of home-working – in his criticism of Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to order the internet company’s telecommuters back to head office: “I think she’s crazy. I can’t find any excuse for her. It’s a very stupid thing to have done [because] it just breeds suspicion, distrust.” He says organisations should “lure [staff] in, not command them in”.

Mr Handy himself embodies the brighter side of his vision that people could step off the corporate hamster-wheel and enjoy varied and active lives, combining work and leisure, into their 70s and beyond. From Shell, he was drawn into management studies and helped develop London Business School in the late 1960s. In 1981, just short of his 50th birthday, he became a free agent, practising what he was already preaching and still preaches: that people should “start the second curve [of their careers] when they’re successful, not when they’re being pushed out”.

Even so, it took him three years and the determined assistance of his wife, Elizabeth, who became his de facto business manager, to shape his portfolio of writing, speaking and broadcasting engagements so that it was both satisfying and remunerative. “We totally reorganised our marriage contract,” he explains. “And we decided to work together, because we noticed that when people changed jobs, they often married somebody that they worked with. Most people [change the marriage contract] by changing the partner, which is easier, but painful and, I would argue, not necessary.”

He and Elizabeth still shuttle gently between Putney and a cottage in Norfolk, working on their respective portfolios (she is a photographer as well as her husband’s gatekeeper). Mr Handy is more rubicund and marginally frailer than the person depicted in his wife’s portraits of him as a younger man. But it is easy to see why he describes his own “third age” as “absolutely fantastic”. “You’re no longer conventionally ambitious because there’s no point. You can’t be chief executive because you’re too old. You can’t be prime minister. So you cease being competitive in that way,” he says, adding, unexpectedly: “The sexual urge diminishes, which is a great relief.”

As such distractions fall away, he adds, “what you’re trying to do is to be in some way better at what you want to be”. It is a version of the Aristotelian objective ofeudaemonia that runs through the former classics student’s work. The concept is sometimes translated as “happiness” but better rendered, according to Mr Handy, as “flourishing”.

While he continues to flourish, however, he readily concedes that he is among a privileged few. The increasing “inhumanity” of most work organisations, the failure of the education system to prepare people for independent working, and the spiritual void left by the failure of institutions, including the Church (Mr Handy’s father was an archdeacon in the Church of Ireland), have left many people floundering, he says. “That’s part of the reason that relationships get screwed up, of course, because nobody’s actually sat down with them, or they haven’t sat down with each other, and said: ‘What are we all about?’ ”

Mr Handy has set himself apart from many high-profile management ex­perts by not offering definitive responses to such questions. It is one reason he dislikes the “guru” title (though it is still the most prominent endorsement on the leaflet his wife Elizabeth hands out to publicise his many books). Instead, he prefers to teach through what he describes as an open, “Socratic” dialogue – “counselling” rather than consulting. “The idea is to help people see that the world is going to be different and [it’s] time for them to adapt to it,” he says.

He and his wife still regularly invite executives and others to discuss the paradoxes of modern life and business dilemmas over a meal.

“What they do about it and what the answers are – no, I don’t have them. I’m never going to have ‘three rules for success’, or anything like that. I think that’s impertinent and bound to be wrong most of the time,” adds the man who could still claim to have been right, most of the time.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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