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 by Neville Garnham

“But they have to fit in,” I’ve heard managers say when they are in the depths of a recruitment process. The myths abound!

“We don’t want someone who’ll disrupt the culture” they say. “They need to learn what we do and do it the way we do it!”

Truly organisations need people who can influence others in positive ways – “fit in” in that sense. But sometimes, the culture, the organisation and its people need to be disrupted in the way it operates, the processes it uses and the way people think!

Years ago, I went to work for any organisation that I knew little about either in itself or in its type of organisation. The position I occupied had been vacant for six months. The employees in the group had barely kept the group “ticking over” without disruptive leadership in that area. It was a debt-recovery function and I knew only a broad sweep of what would be needed from academic studies.

The manager of the larger area was under considerable pressure and had been for quite some time, covering many different types of activities. He and his superiors were unfazed by my lack of knowledge of the organisation (or its type) or lack of experience in the specific functional area. They promised me that they’d help overcome that deficiency with a month’s training for me throughout the organisation.

I started on a Monday; the “month’s training” finished at midday on the Wednesday. I went to my desk and found three desks piled with about two feet (60 millimetres) of files covering each of the desks such that no part of their surfaces could be seen. I asked where I’d find the “aged accounts report” – there was none, but they produced about three feet (a metre) high of computer printouts each month in five reports. Staff had been going through these and extracting relevant information from them; they then either referred the file to external lawyers or wrote individually signed letters to the person involved. Laborious and time-wasting processes for little gain until it would started all over again in seven months’ time.

I know then that we had a challenge in front of us. The best figure that had been achieved previously was 9.7% outstanding debt at the financial end-of-year!

I spent the remainder of that first week superficially glancing at every physical file; sending most of them back to records for re-filing and sending about two-dozen to external lawyers as we didn’t have mechanisms to deal effectively and efficiently with them at the time.

Then, on a casual word said by someone, I visited the internal auditor early the second week that I was there. He recalled that in a report he’d done some two years previously he’d recommended that the organisation should get a computer program to run on its mainframe to undertake debt-recovery better. Nothing had happened to his knowledge and he hadn’t revisited that particular aspect of operational activity.

My pathway then encompassed a visit to the computer area. There I was informed that the computer program had been purchased about 18 months previously, but hadn’t been installed. So, I asked could it be installed and could someone either start producing aged-accounts for me or teach me how to use the software to produce such reports on a weekly basis.

As I recall, that was late on the Tuesday afternoon. I was advised that there was only one person (Deborah) who knew anything about that program. She was said to be extremely busy. Asking if I could spend some time with her to learn how to use the program, I was told that might be a bit difficult in that current week; and, the real stinger was that she was leaving permanently on Friday of that week. They loaded the program on the Wednesday evening in the overnight computer update. I managed to capture about an hour and a half of Deborah’s time late on Thursday afternoon and she was as helpful as she could be in the time available. “Good luck!” she told me as we parted and I’m sure she was implying that I’d really need it. The same thought crossed my mind also!

It took me just over six weeks (crossing the Christmas and New Year period) to code the program and test it weekly with my team members against the pyramid of monthly-produced paper mentioned earlier. I was grateful for the enthusiastic support and help from my team who saw clearly that it would make their work lives easier and more fulfilling. They could deal with the people then, rather than merely handling so much paper!

The first fully-acceptable weekly aged-accounts report ran in the first week of the New Year. We were then five and half months away from “judgement day” as to the amount of outstanding debt for that financial year. The first report started out being about an inch (12.5 millimetres) thick and it gradually diminished in thickness from there as the financial year progressed. The computer people were glad to stop producing the piles of monthly reports that took up inordinate amounts of computer processing time and printing time, when they asked should they stop!

From there we automated the letter-writing process to debtors. Some debtors whined, some moaned and paid, some entered into payment plans, some were quite recalcitrant (but that’s another story) and my team and I were beginning optimistically to look towards judgement day!

When judgement day arrived, everyone was on tender-hooks for the figure that would emerge from finance. We knew it had to be better than the 9.7% outstanding which had been the best every achieved previously. But, by how much would it be better, we pondered with optimism.

The figure of 0.74% blew everyone away. The team had worked hard and brilliantly together. They deserved the greatest of credit! But, as a team we’d been disruptive and that was exactly what the organisation needed at that time.

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