Results of a UK survey announced today and discussed on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme suggest that the aspiration of most school kids is to be “famous”. There’s no thought of how and no appreciation of the work involved, and why should there be? Programmes like Big Brother and The X-factor and parasites like Paris Hilton have proved to us all that celebrity can be an occupation. Why should our kids commit to working for recognition?
This thinking isn’t as new as you may think though and it certainly isn’t confined to the UK. For one thing, I have been seeing it every day for as long as I have been hanging around Prague. Here, you’ll find scores of young Czechs with aspirations to be important, high-profile business people, driving their Mercedes to their newly-built villas on the edge of town and not the vaguest idea of how they would achieve this and usually little hope of ever succeeding. Its what has driven, what seems like an entire over-mortgaged generation who, facilitated by easy loans and sharp salesmen, are often driving the flashy cars before they have a real job. It makes recruitment difficult too and in a land where unemployment is barely measurable, has driven salary levels ever-upward as kids fresh out of college demand salaries higher than their bosses purely on the basis of their school certificates. I once challenged a young graduate to tell me why she thought she was worth 20,000 Koruna a month (a decent living at the time) and she replied “Because I am educated and speak English”. She didn’t get it that I was hoping for something more tangible and actually got up and stormed out of the room saying that I didn’t understand when I started to explain that if I paid her the figure she was asking for she would have to deliver more than that in revenue!
But also, somewhere, in some land that I have yet to discover, I swear there is a Head-In-The-Clouds Business Academy that churns out no end of business executives who are also destined never to “get it”. I come across them all the time. I tend to be called in and arrive moments before the Official Receiver at which point I have it explained to me that business isn’t good and asked can I “help them fix it?”. A short “discovery” period is usually enough to reveal that “isn’t good” was an understatement and often the business is effectively bankrupt. I had one a few months ago where every sale the organisation made was actually costing them money. They literally couldn’t afford to sell anything, but that’s another story. Sometimes there’s a way that disaster can be avoided, but drastic measures are called for and almost without exception, this means changing the management perspective. The trouble I find though is that whilst the theory is never questioned, when it comes to implementing the remedy these organisations just aren’t prepared to bite the bullet. As the great Tom Lehrer said “… like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis …”. “Can’t you just do something to get us through without being so drastic?” is a question I often hear and the answer is “Yes, but after all the effort it will only mean that you go broke next month rather than this”. The real surprise is how willingly so many managers will accept this as a solution. No pain, no gain.
I have written and spoken many times in the past about the similarity between sportsmen and women and businessess and I was reflecting earlier today on the achievement, but most of all the determination and work of people like Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man. I also recall an interview that I heard in the last few weeks with someone involved in youth sports initiatives in the UK, who was saying that too many young kids with talent just aren’t prepared to put in the work it takes to realise their full potential. The truth is that in most of the developed world life has been too cushy for too long to expect a rich vein of hungry young men and women prepared to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of true achievement and we are increasingly seeing sports champions from less privilaged societies rise to the top – four of the world’s top ten squash players are Egyptian, Usein Bolt is Jamaican (as if he hadn’t made his pride in this reality more than obvious!).
In a world where dot-com billionaires still seem to be created at the drop of a hat, just because they are in the right place at the right time, I can’t tell you how great it is to, as I have this week, embark on a project with a small team of people with a great idea, tremendous passion and a commitment to 24/7 full-on physical effort (I don’t know how they do it) that defies normal human capability. I really hope that I can help them make it work. The world needs a few more business “celebrities” who got there by dint of real hard work and these guys really deserve a break. Somehow, though, I get the feeling that they’ll make it regardless, just by shere determination.
November 13, 2008