UK: TAKEN WITH A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR - MANAGEMENT STYLE. - Is management style predetermined by basic instinct or does exposure to role models at an impressionable age have a part to play? David Morton considers the Mary Poppins effect.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is management style predetermined by basic instinct or does exposure to role models at an impressionable age have a part to play? David Morton considers the Mary Poppins effect.

To start at the very beginning - which, as you may remember Ms Andrews once pointed out (in The Sound of Music), 'is a very good place to start'. Now when you sing you begin with doh, ray, mi - unfortunately if you're talking about management you soon discover this approach isn't quite rigorous enough.

In fact recent discoveries in the field of biology indicate that it is the few moments before the actual beginning of a manager's life which determine not only the sort of managers we get but also the very distinctive 'management style' which is observable in most areas of British industry.

So, to start at just before the very beginning, what biologists have discovered and filmed is what happens just before a British manager is conceived. Clearly this could be quite a racy film but the biologists have edited it down to a version suitable for all the family and the readers of Management Today in which the key footage consists of what looks like a convention of several thousand tadpoles conga-dancing their way to a single distant dart-board bulls-eye.

Managers who can still remember their biology O level (and does anybody ever forget such useful knowledge) will readily recognise the tadpoles as sperm on their way to the patiently-waiting, bulls-eye look-alike of the ovum.

What the biologists have discovered in the years since the last O Level biology paper was set is the fact that a single sperm on its own has as much chance of successfully swimming its way to the ovum as you have of swimming the Atlantic. The go-it-alone types get about as far as five lengths in the swimming pool and then conk out.

It turns out that to have any chance of making the epic journey the sperm have to join together in the vast conga dance featured in the film so that they all benefit from each other's speed and stamina. There is, however, a catch to this tale of co-operative effort for - as even those who only just managed a pass grade will remember - only one sperm gets to fertilise the ovum. Or to put it another way - although a sperm can't get anywhere without joining the crowd, equally it won't get anywhere if it stays with the crowd. Sooner or later it is back to individual effort, each potential man or woman for him or herself, sauve qui peut and devil take the hindmost.

In short there comes a moment when each sperm has to assess its chances, break off from the conga and make its own bee-line for home base - leaving behind its buddies who are hopefully too busy Doing the Locomotion to notice.

This is a matter of fine judgement as those that jump ship too early can find themselves still too far away to make it on their own, while those who jump ship too late are likely to find someone else has already got to home base.

Now it is a fact that all Britain's managers started off as the sort of biological material which could best judge when to drop its colleagues and look after the interests of Number One. And if they show that sort of Basic Instinct for career management at that stage in their life, what are they going to be like when there's a company car involved?

However, not all scientists believe that managers need be so predetermined by their basic instincts. Some believe that nurture can play just as big a role as nature in the development of the fully-fledged manager and that the most effective way of influencing behaviour is by providing the impressionable young with 'role models' which they can imitate.

Which almost brings us back to Julie Andrews.

You see, 30 years ago Britain's managers were a livelier, younger and rather more impressionable lot than they are today. In short 30 years ago many of today's managers were in shorts - and those that weren't, were in pigtails. And most importantly, 30 years ago these impressionable managers-to-be were being taken by their mothers and fathers to see the 'supercalifragilistic-expialidocious' Julie Andrews transform the management style of a traditional British family.

Many leading scientists believe that so strong was the role model that Julie Andrews provided to this generation that today's managers will subconsciously seek a Mary Poppins solution to any of the problems they face.

Some scientists even believe this may also explain why the British elected Mrs Thatcher three times - they thought she was Mary Poppins - and followed her with John Major as the friendly chimney sweep sort of person - with an odd accent - that Dick Van Dyke played in the film. If this theory is true we have some interesting times ahead - the next generation of CEOs was apparently much influenced by the Jungle Book. And God help us when the Wayne's World set, with its celebration of the 'nerd', arrives in power.

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