by JEREMY BULLMORE, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now adirector of Guardian Media Group and WPP
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: I was delighted recently to be offered a senior position with a well-known, family run manufacturer. On joining, however, I realise it has dire problems that weren't apparent from the outside - financial insecurity, an unhappy workforce and an indecisive board. I could see this as a challenge but my instinct is to cut and run. What do you think?

A: I don't want to sound unsympathetic - but why in the name of Stephen Byers did you join this shambles in the first place?

You say your new company has 'dire problems that weren't apparent in the first place'. It's no good blaming problems for not being apparent.

Problems go to great lengths not to be apparent. You've got to blame yourself for not rootling them out. And by the sound of it, they wouldn't have taken much rootling.

The fact that it's family run should have triggered the first alarm bell. Family-run firms have two classes of citizen: family - and the rest. It's not villainy: it's just that people who own companies identify with them so closely that they simply can't distinguish between personal things and business things. And if you're not family, then you're hired help.

A lot of people seem to go all soft in the head when they're offered a job. Golly gosh - somebody wants me to be a director! How sweet of them!

You don't have to become a bitter old cynic to make room for a little healthy scepticism. Just ask a few beady questions.

Why do they need you? What happened to your predecessors? Can you talk to them? Can you talk to the company's auditors? Find out which pub people go to after work for a pint and a grumble, then go there yourself and hang around a bit.

I'm only telling you all this because next time you'd better be a great deal more careful. And by the sound of it, next time can't come too soon.

Yes, certainly: you should cut and run. But do please work out first where you're going to run to.


Q: Directives have appeared from on high that we must all wear jeans at work on 'Jeans Day' this year, or pay pounds 10 to charity. I don't object to paying money to charity but I do object to the dictatorial way in which this piece of 'fun' is being imposed. I don't want to wear jeans but nor do I want to pay up. I'm not the only one. What should I do?

A: I agree with the word dictatorial. It does sound an ill-judged bit of management. But what's not clear from your letter is whether this instruction is characteristic of a general management style or an aberration. If it's the second, be careful not to get too self-righteous about it all. Your phrase 'I'm not the only one' is ominous. It sounds as if groups of you may already be huffing and puffing yourselves into an exaggerated state of indignation. Maybe your boss dictated the note on a busy day after an overnight flight and didn't have time to check it out with anyone.

If that's the case, or something like it, find a time to go and see him/her.

Don't play the shop steward role; play it light and suggest a draft for a second, follow-up memo that would loosen things up without anyone losing face.

The whole thing becomes a great deal more difficult if your management makes a regular habit of firing off such instructions from the bridge.

They've no right to order you to give money to charity - and indeed, these days, are very unwise to 'order' anybody to do anything. The enhancement of authority is seldom achieved by the naked exercise of it.

So, if the 'Jeans Day' affair is an all-too-typical example of corporate authoritarianism, you'll need to plan a subtle programme of reform. Talk it through with like-minded people, calmly and soberly. Under no circumstances draft up an action plan after four drinks in the wine bar on a Friday night.

Check on the structures and procedures that exist within your company.

Are there regular sessions where managers listen to the managed? Is there any Intranet equivalent to the old suggestions box? If so, use them. Make the helpful point that many of you would like to give more if you were involved more and instructed less. Management's first reaction to this well-mannered approach will tell you all you need to know; and whether you should hang on in there or join the escape committee.


Q: I have just joined a design company in a senior client service capacity. Unfortunately the managerial group has worked together for years and is very tight-knit. I'm not a natural extrovert and I feel like I'm being left out of the loop. How do I make myself heard quickly?

A: As a senior account person, you should devote your entire skills and energy towards serving your clients brilliantly. In any creative service business, anyone who is consistently successful in delivering excellent work is going to be listened to soon enough.

Just one caveat. As a client service director, you'll need to fight from time to time to get the internal resources you need. If you find that your 'tight-knit managerial group' are getting themselves preferential treatment and that you're often at the back of the queue for the creative director, then you must make a move or your clients will suffer. But still don't demand to be 'part of management'. Use client service as your legitimate lever.

Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP.

Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably no correspondence can be entered into

How to: Q&A

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