If work's a jungle, play like a tiger

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The Independent Online
Kevin was a high-flier in his thirties who had recently been appointed to a senior management position in a manufacturing company in the North- east. Although he had been head-hunted for the post, he was viewed with suspicion by colleagues and some of the company's board members. One described him as "a plummy-voiced southerner with more qualifications than sense".

So when he came to make a presentation shortly after Christmas about some organisational changes he was proposing, the omens were not good. What was more, amid all the festivities, he did not have sufficient time to prepare himself or lobby the people who were going to attend the meeting.

As soon as he began, the human resources director interrupted to demand: "Who are the people involved in all this? How many job losses are you talking about?" Although he could have replied that he was discussing the restructuring in general terms and that it would not have been appropriate to go into detail at that stage, he was thrown off balance by the questions.

The presentation went from bad to worse as other board members began to pick holes in his arguments. Kevin was left unable to understand why all these people had turned against him.

What he was a victim of, of course, was office politics. He had not taken into account other people's agendas, especially their desire to impress the chief executive by showing someone else up. He had also failed to make sure before the meeting that he had enough support for his proposals. By not playing effective politics, he had shot himself in the foot.

Such is the verdict of Susan Bloch and Terence Bates, psychologists and consultants, in a book published this month that attempts to guide managers through the thick jungle that is today's world of work.

Much has been written - by the likes of William Bridges and the team of Peter Herriot and Carole Pemberton - on changes occurring in the organisations that graduates are joining. But although the theory of delayered structures and project and team-based learning has made compelling reading, there has so far been little concrete indication of what individuals should do to thrive in the turbulent atmosphere that has replaced the certainty of the career ladder.

Consultants have glibly called on new recruits to take a greater responsibility for the development of their own professional growth by acquiring the skills that will make them "employable" not just in their current position, but also in future ones.

The problem is that although organisations are increasingly introducing personal development plans as a way of linking their plans for their employees with individuals' ambitions, the long working hours expected of most managers leave little time for extracurricular self-improvement.

Bloch and Bates, who work with GHN, a firm specialising in executive coaching and mentoring, believe that they can help to meet that need. In their book, Employability, they set out to help people to gain "the skills necessary for navigating that journey into the unknown called a 'career'. The activities we have included will help you to become mentally and physically fit for this journey and show you how to prepare for the unexpected."

The book, part of Kogan Page's "Fast-Track MBA Series", seeks to encourage individuals to view their careers as if they were businesses: "Me plc". The activities included are designed to help the reader to assess strengths and weaknesses, establish strategic goals, develop assets and market "unique selling points".

As the example of Kevin demonstrates, many of the hazards that Bloch and Bates can help with are not new. Office politics has always been, and probably always will be, a difficult issue.

It is ability in what they call the "white areas" of people and politics that helps certain individuals to progress beyond those with similar strengths in the "dark areas" of tasks and functional knowledge. Kevin's case also - as Bloch and Bates point out - illustrates "the importance of preparation in managing difficult situations" - again, not a new requirement. Their advice - to make sure you think through what questions you may be asked and how you might tactfully answer them - is likewise not especially insightful. But where the book is useful is in promoting the idea of individuals using activities by which they can ascertain whether they have problems in this department, or others.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book concludes with some assistance on coping with the unexpected. "If you have your parachute in place - if you are constantly learning and have cultivated your network - then even if something goes wrong, you will be able to cope," Bloch and Bates state. "One disappointment need not be the end of the world, and an apparent setback, a sudden change of circumstances, can even open doors to new opportunities."

They point to the example of David, who by his mid-thirties was managing a textile manufacturer's plant in Wales when the company was taken over. He had been hoping his success in this role would lead to a main board position, so was surprised when the acquirer offered him a position running a plant in California. Though he briefly hesitated before accepting the job, he realised that "the unexpected had turned out to open doors to new opportunities". His goal was still a UK board position, but he was aware that possibilities now included a top job in the new parent company.