Books: Robinson's casebook

This work of two halves seems to suffer from schizophrenia, says Francis Beckett. I'LL SHOW THEM WHO'S BOSS - THE SIX SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL MANAGEMENT

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By Gerry Robinson; BBC Books £16.99; MT price £14.99

Gerry Robinson's first marriage was a mistake. He knew it before the wedding, but lacked the courage to cancel the arrangements. The resulting divorce was messy, with Gerry and his wife communicating through lawyers.

He returns to the story twice in I'll Show Them Who's Boss. It may not be immediately obvious how you can draw management lessons from a failed marriage, but Robinson is of the popular consultant-as-therapist school. He reminds me of the history don I knew as a student who had a reputation for great wisdom, acquired when he paused for a long time mid-lecture looking troubled and then said: 'You can't really understand the Russian revolution unless you've been in love.'

This book, a spinoff from Robinson's TV shows, concentrates on family businesses, and he often sounds like a kindly family therapist. 'I was concerned,' he tells us, 'about Iona's relationship with her husband Peter ... They needed to open up better channels of communication, stop sniping at each other, and operate much more as a team.' One imagines him sitting back in his chair and asking them to recall their dreams.

Iona and Peter run Muncaster Castle, the stately home belonging to Iona's parents. Iona, says Robinson, has wonderful non-verbal communication. 'She could torpedo an idea by a twitch of the eyebrow.' This 'is dangerous because it doesn't allow for a reply'. I felt I could do with a session in Robinson's consulting rooms, for I live with a woman who does that, mostly over such matters as where we will take our holidays.

Robinson gained a detailed understanding of the family's dynamics, and sometimes his descriptions resemble Dr Freud's casebook: 'Phyllida (Iona's mother) stated that her husband Patrick was really in charge. Patrick admitted in private that while Iona was nominally in control, in fact Phyllida continued as though she were in charge. Meanwhile, Iona felt she was in charge and could do well at it if given space to do so. Peter felt blocked by both these strong women. Are you with me still?'

Of another family's business, he says: 'There was a great deal of anger and frustration that had not been acknowledged or dealt with.'

For Robinson, life imitates business. A leader is like a parent: 'It's rather like when you were in your bedroom as a child, with your mum or dad in the house - a sense of calm, a feeling that someone is in control and that everything is all right.' The good business leader is a bit like God, too: 'We need a little sense of mystery that someone "up there" is dealing with the difficult, unpredictable things in life, making everything safe.'

But what happens when things go wrong? Does the father-figure gather his children round him and tell them everything will be all right? Not a bit of it. He turns to the chapter called 'Doing the Dirt', which forgoes any kindly family therapy. It offers a five-point checklist for getting rid of people without harming your business.

Do it quickly, cleanly, efficiently, clinically, urges Robinson. Don't consult lawyers. Get rid of more people than you need, because if later you are able to start recruiting, it will look as though you've turned the corner. And don't offer voluntary redundancy. You need to choose the ones you don't want, not the ones who are happy to go.

None of this is particularly new, but it's startling after the cosy, feelgood stuff that went before. The face of the kindly family therapist falls away like a mask. Robinson's strategic review at Granada meant making 1,000 people redundant. He led the fabled, and ruthless, Granada takeover of Trusthouse Forte. Later, as chairman of the Arts Council, he was persuaded not to renege on a deal already in place that any redundancies should be done on a voluntary basis. The result was that the process took much too long for his taste.

I'll Show Them Who's Boss is really two books in one binding. One is a likable, readable little book about families with inherited wealth - fun to read, though for most of us it has little practical relevance.

The other is a brief management textbook. It has no great new ideas, but it puts the old ones clearly and simply, and they have extra status because they come from a successful and ruthless practitioner who does not mind contributing to his own mythology.

Francis Beckett is an author and journalist. His new book, The Blairs and their Court, will be published in October by Aurum.

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