Books - Lucy with the blue stiletto - Howard Davies reflects on the underlying world view of the FT's court jester.
Sense & Nonsense in the Office
Financial Times Prentice Hall £12.99
For some years now, Lucy Kellaway has been the licensed jester at the court of the Financial Times. Her cheeky mugshot adorns 1,000 chirpy words each Monday morning, shining brightly among the worthy columns giving us the details of developments in commercial rents in EC4, or insights into recent systems changes on the Latvian stock market.
I say 'jester' because her column, though waspish at times, rarely draws blood. This may perhaps be because her targets - mainly management gurus, management consultants and corporate PRs - are only 'country' members of the human race. Unlike normal mortals they do not bleed when you prick them.
So, no doubt like many others with a guilty past, I have gained regular rueful enjoyment from her columns. In my five years as a management consultant with McKinsey I cannot, hand on heart, say I was never guilty of peddling the kind of jargon that Kellaway so abhors. And I may well have put my name to the kind of self-serving press release that brings her out in hives. Yet I can empathise with her weekly critiques, which never seem quite to hit my own particular foibles.
But in enjoying her exasperated outpourings I have never before been moved to reflect on her underlying world view. I have given little thought to characterising the KellawayWeltanschauung.
This book, essentially a compilation of her recent columns, organised loosely into thematic chapters, with a little bit of updated topping and tailing, invites one to do so, and to see Kellaway in the round, so to speak.
At book length, she is revealed as, frankly, a bit of a softie. Just as she is about to plunge her stiletto (the knife - I am sure she would never wear the heels) into the latest management faddist we are reintroduced to one of her many small children who, on cue, makes a cutesy remark ('I hate you, you're poo') that adds a spoonful of saccharin to the bile.
Or her non-executive director (husband) makes an impromptu appearance.
But she is not just a gentle, homey sort. She is also, more interestingly, an old-fashioned, true-blue conservative - with only a small c, I am sure.
Management, she recognises in a somewhat apologetic introduction to this collection, is hard. It really is jolly difficult to persuade other people to do things your way, and simultaneously to persuade them that they thought of the idea first. But, as far as she is concerned, you can either do it or you can't. Management ability is something bred in the bone, not something that can be learned, or even improved on. In the Kellaway corporation the hereditary principle would apply to board appointments, and woebetide the ambitious young thing who claimed that training or qualification had fitted her for the post. I don't care a fig for your MBA or your 15 years at Arthur Andersen, we hear chairperson Kellaway firmly respond, 'you're poo'.
This is not - believe me - a plea for sympathy and understanding on behalf of the Distressed Consultants Association. Management consultants can speak up for themselves: it would be particularly good to hear from the BCG partner who turned Kellaway down for a job: he has a lot to answer for.
But I do think there is good and bad in consultancy, in management books (though far more bad than good in that case), in management training, and even - dare I say it? - in corporate PR.
Journalists and commentators can play a useful role in helping the rest of us sort out the wheat from the chaff. An approach based on blanket condemnation of all their works will not do the trick.
But do not let this cavilling put you off. Sense & Nonsense in the Office will cheerfully pass a dull hour or two in your cell at the firm's next offsite management development course. There are not so many licensed jesters around these days that we can afford to jettison a distinguished leading practitioner just for being a high Tory, which, even in New Labour Britain, is not yet a capital offence.