BOOKS: The free corporate spirit - Life outside the major companies can seem daunting. Bob Ayling enjoys Charles Handy's account of how he thrives on the periphery

BOOKS: The free corporate spirit - Life outside the major companies can seem daunting. Bob Ayling enjoys Charles Handy's account of how he thrives on the periphery - The Elephant and the Flea; By Charles Handy; Random House; pounds 16.99

by BOB AYLING, former CEO of British Airways
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Elephant and the Flea; By Charles Handy; Random House; pounds 16.99

Charles Handy is the antidote to management gurus, management teachers and writers about management and business. Perhaps it's because he read classics and places value on the meaning of words before using them. Or perhaps he is unusually interested in the activity of business and has the rare skill to consider and comment on it in a way that is useful to the practitioner. His own life inside large commercial organisations such as Shell and the London Business School (what he calls 'Elephants'), and his life outside as an independent person or 'Flea' are the stuff of his latest and excellent book.

One of the advantages of walking from place to place rather than being driven is the chance of an unplanned meeting. The same is true inside organisations. If managers sit in closeted rooms they will miss the random interruption, or fail to pick up the bit of gossip that may tell them what they need to know about their business.

I recently bumped into an ex-British Airways colleague in the street. He had been a particularly effective leader of one of BA's legendary motivational programmes. During the programme he had come into contact with people from every part of the airline and had access to the most senior managers. He took advantage of this in the best possible way by telling them what the front-line employees were saying, and vice versa.

When the programme ended I thought he would easily find a good job within the established order. But managers feared his extensive knowledge of the company and his access to people who might be more senior. They also perhaps felt uncomfortable with his insistence on meeting the demands of customers and competition, and may have hoped that if he went away, so might some of the harder realities of a deregulating, unremittingly competitive world.

My ex-colleague was looking well and I asked what he was up to. The answer - in Handy's classification - was that he had become a flea. He now teaches people in many organisations, speaking and motivating - so successfully that in little over a month he now earns as much as most CEOs do in a year.

This anecdote would come as no surprise to Handy. He describes the benefits and disbenefits of the large organisations he has known, and the challenges of living inside and outside them. He draws on memories of Shell in his early career, his appointment as a young manager in Malaya (as it then was), and how he couldn't quite swallow the assumptions of the time that profits were a function of costs, not of prices determined by competition.

Given the task of working out prices for lubricating oils, Handy was told by his manager to get the cost allocation from the finance department and then add the required range of profit to find the price. When Handy pointed out that by this method all companies needed to do was get bigger to get more profitable, he was told: 'That's business. You'll learn.'

Handy did learn, but not quite what his boss had in mind. He learnt that large organisations, whether in the public or private sector, tend to be monopolistic; that he was unsuited to life within formal structures; and that he had the gift of understanding business dynamics and could help people who had chosen management as their way of earning a living.

His deceptively easy style is in contrast to the received style of management texts, partly because Handy adopts the unfashionable practice of using sentences, and partly because, like all good teachers, he makes difficult stuff seem easy.

But the book is really for the escapees, those who become independent, 'the sort of transition that almost everyone will be required to make in the more flexible world we are entering ... There are no schools for this.'

That may be true, but The Elephant and the Flea would be a good starting point for anyone who, like Handy, wakes up on his 49th birthday unemployed.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime