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Up the organisation!

I was appointed to my first “real” management job in April 1976! Yep, a real management job – where I actually was responsible for “managing”, supervising and advising a team of about ten employees in the Brisbane head office of a very large multi-national travel company.

What a hellish introduction to the manager’s chair it was.

The company was venerable old Thomas Cook Travel, at that stage, already well over 100 years old. For those who do not know, the gentleman after whom the company is named was the world’s first ever travel agent. Old Thomas Cook started his business in the 1840s by arranging group train excursions out of London to temperance rallies around England.

It always brought a smile to my face when I thought of what dear old Thomas Cook and his temperance friends would have thought about the outrageous shenanigans of travel industry practitioners in the seventies, and temperance certainly was not one of their strong points! But I digress.

Learning how to be a successful manager is a progressive pursuit and at Thomas Cook, I learned the first and second rules of this fine art.

First, it was said at the time that I was the first person in the worldwide Thomas Cook organisation who had ever been appointed to management without first spending 30 years of “learning the ropes” in the company.

I actually had two “mature age” people in my office who had both been with Cooks since just after the Second World War and now they found themselves answerable to a 31 year old “smartarse” from an airline. This could have been a recipe for disaster.

I eventually won them over because in those days of horrendously complicated international airfares, I soon proved that with my airline background and training, I knew a lot more about constructing these weird airfares than they did! The animosity ebbed away. Lesson to be learned – if you want to be a respected manager, make sure you know more about your topic than those you are managing!

The second rule of management I learned at Thomas Cook, I learned from the Australian managing director, who shall remain nameless.

Shortly after I took up my position, and while I was still a bit cowered by the enormity of the whole thing, I stupidly rang the MD in Sydney for advice on a problem. Now, at the time, the MD for Thomas Cook in Australia was an ex-British army major who stood six foot tall and had the build of a successful rugby front rower. He had probably annihilated many an enemy with his bare hands before going into commerce in his retirement from the military. He had not lost one bit of his army persona! I remember his response to my call as if it were only yesterday: “Mike, I pay you to manage! Just bloody manage!”

The lesson I learned is this. If you aspire to be a manager, you must also be ready to take a risk at times based on your own judgment. If you are not confident enough in your own judgment to do that, then stay an employee because management is not for you.

I must be very easily distracted because Thomas Cook was not really what I set out to talk about.

It was about this time that I read the most important book on management I have ever read and a book by whose management principles I have tried to live for more than 30 years. That book is Up the organisation and was penned by one of America’s most transformative and farsighted CEOs, Robert Townsend.

I read in the The Australian a month or two ago about the CEO of some big Australian mining company who was on six million bucks a year but got sacked because of his toxic interaction with his staff! If this particular person had read Up the organisation he may still have a job (and six million big ones a year).

Robert Townsend was the CEO of Avis Rent a Car in America when Avis was just a minnow in a very big pond and the market was completely dominated by Hertz. Robert Townsend was the CEO who introduced the advertising slogan “We are No 2 but we try harder”.

In Up the Organisation, Robert Townsend highlighted the concept of Theory X and Theory Y companies. This theory had originally been proposed by Douglas McGregor in 1960. A Theory X company (and this describes the majority of companies in America and Australia to this day) operate on the same corporate structure as the Catholic Church and Julius Caesar’s legions!

All power resides at the top of the pyramid and all below must obey or their heads will be cut off (or perhaps they will be excommunicated)!

A Theory Y company, and I quote, “assumes that people will exercise self-direction and self-control in the achievement of organisational objectives to the degree that they are committed to those objectives”.

In other words, your employees are not idiots, so don’t treat them like idiots! If you can sell your desired objectives for your business to your employees as their desirable objectives, your employees will move heaven and Earth to help you achieve those objectives. Try to drive them towards your objectives with threats, bad temper and bad language and you will fail!

There are just so many management insights in this wonderful book that I cannot fit them into the space the editor allows me, so for part two, you must wait for my next article or if you are really curious, Up the Organisation is still available online.


Rosie Clarke

Rosie Clarke is managing editor at Multimedia Publishing.

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