Horses for Courses

I read the eWeek article that Adam Cole suggested (,1895,2002881,00.asp) and much of what it says echoes what has been written here, particularly by Stephen, about the need for ‘versatilists’. By shear coincidence a few thoughts were going through my mind recently about the different people that I have met over my career and what made them stick. The eWeek article prompted me to write them down. Contrary to what you might be expecting I am not going to just discuss ‘versatilists’ but rather the bigger picture. Although I truly believe that the IT Industry will demand and need more ‘versatilists’ in the future, I think that it is also important to consider the wider implications. For example, the eWeek article basically said that if you want to progress aim to become a Project Manager. Are we to assume then that the opposite is then true, ie. you won’t progress if you don’t aim to become a PM? The world cannot consist entirely of PM’s, or those working towards that goal, any more than it can consist entirely of ‘versatilists’. Although skills are important, you cannot separate who you are, ie. personality/character, from what you will ultimately be capable of doing. Any amount of education and experience won’t change a ‘cow’s ear into a silk purse’. I firmly believe that the ‘base material’ must be there to build upon.

When we talk about changing the standards by which we are to be judged we must also consider the consequences of those changes. By consequences I mean in the widest possible sense. For example, do you consider that business should have a social conscience or just a bottom line? What about all of those people who are simply not going to ‘make it’ judged by more demanding or different standards? How will they get gainful employment? Do they still count? Such things affect social structure and order and ultimately the environment within which companies operate. I don’t believe that they can ignore that entirely.

However, all is not lost because in reality it has always been, and always will be, ‘Horses for Courses’. In other words we are all equipped to ultimately do a certain type of work. We may be able to extend the scope of that work to some degree but it is unlikely that most people will move substantially outside of their ‘comfort zone’. The real challenge is keeping everybody ‘happy’ in their work and content to accept that they aren’t all ‘going to make it’ but still have a valuable, and valued, place in the ‘system’. A world full of ‘generals’, without any ‘foot soldiers’, doesn’t make any sense. Industry may demand more ‘versatilists’ but the truth is that relatively few are truly innately equipped to get there. I don’t say that from some elitist viewpoint but from a purely practical one.

People basically fall into four broad categories:

  1. The thinkers/visionaries/strategists/planners
  2. The ‘builders’/’doers’
  3. The implementers/leaders
  4. The maintainers/’polishers’

Familiar processes illustrate this; any project which generates infrastructure or a new product for example. The fact is we need all of these categories and we must create an environment in which everyone feels needed and productive. It is extremely rare indeed that you find people who are both adept and content in fitting into all four categories as circumstances demand.

Before coming to Canada I worked for a very large international chemical company (ICI), second only to DuPont at the time. The chairman of ICI was typically on first name terms with the Prime Minister of England and a prominent figure internationally. It was clear that the company had to go through a period of major change in order to survive. The ‘managers’ had evolved into a culture of ‘maintainers’ both from habit and personal protection standpoints. The company announced a new chairman and the world said, ‘who is this man?; the company must be crazy’. Ordinarily, the person would already be very well known publicly.

Things jogged along pretty much the same and the chairman was virtually invisible both inside and outside the company. The employees were justifiably very concerned and believed that indeed the company must be crazy! Then in 1982 the company appointed a man by the name of John Harvey-Jones (clearly a distant relative), whom I had met on a couple of occasions when he had been a director of the division of ICI where I worked. Harvey-Jones was not your typical director. He had long hair down around his shoulders (at the age of 45) and was a very snappy dresser (flowery ties and patterned waistcoats – ie. vests for those of you from NA ). It is difficult to define the word ‘charismatic’ but he certainly seemed to fit the bill. Incidentally some of his early influence, prior to becoming chairman, resulted in my immigration to Canada in 1981. The facility where I worked was shut down putting 700 people out of work!

John Harvey-Jones (eventually to become Sir John) definitely wasn’t invisible. Then the penny dropped. The ICI board had not been crazy at all but in fact extremely smart. Sir John’s predecessor was type 1 and he spent his term strategizing the company’s future and Sir John was type 3. His task was to implement the strategy and indeed he did, quite ruthlessly at times! In 20 months he completely turned the company around. One man cannot accomplish such a huge task alone. In reality, his task amounted to changing the employee demographics and culture to achieve the right balance of types 1 thru 4, move the company forward as per the ‘master plan’ and use his ‘charismatic’ personality to energize the staff. To achieve this he, of course, had to find the right people either from within the company ranks or from outside whom could both act as, when required, and effectively interface with types 1 thru 4. In other words ‘Horses for Courses’. Sir John wrote about his experiences, which I have read and found very illuminating. Do an internet search for John Harvey-Jones. You will find it worthwhile to read about him and his business philosophies.

While working for ICI, I was recruited to work on a team to develop software for the process design of chemical plants (Chem Eng is my original discipline) at a head office research establishment. There I found myself working with people who were absolutely brilliant ‘thinkers’. It was impossible to win an argument with them because, even if you thought that you had them on the run, they could retreat faster than you could move forward :). Typically, they would go home for the weekend and return on Monday declaring that a particular problem was solved and produced a huge pile of paper containing very heavy math to prove it.

At first I felt quite overwhelmed and intimidated wondering what I was doing there! Eventually I got the drift. These people were great thinkers but in their minds it was over once the math was on paper. The truth was that it wasn’t always practical to implement their work nor was it over until it was in the form of user friendly software. I wasn’t there to be like them (phew!) but because it was felt that I would be able to interface with them and turn their ‘ideas’ into products. As a sidebar, in many of the math classes that I attended in University I sat there thinking, “I will never use this stuff. What a waste of time!”. Boy was I ever wrong; never say never. This was my first real experience in having to deal with the whole spectrum of people because my other roles included teaching others how to use the software products and helping others to solve real design problems using the software, right across the company in the UK. Not that it will mean much to most of you but my specialty was the design of distillation equipment (no not the kind for making moonshine!).

Ok so stories are fine but what is the overall point. Well, to put things in the context of IT, over the past ten years the demands upon IT Managers (I was one at an engineering company about 10 years ago), especially in larger companies, and CIO’s have evolved to the point that ideally they must be able to operate effectively in all 4 areas as and when required. Further they must be able to ‘interface’ effectively with all 4 types as and when required. The job has become less and less technical and more business focused as is written about on a regular basis these days. It is small wonder that it has become very challenging, potentially very stressful and fraught with continued employment uncertainty. There can be few environments where the goal posts move so often or so rapidly or where there are so many possible choices regarding the way forward. If you don’t move forward you are dammed and if you do, but in the wrong direction, you are also dammed. If that isn’t bad enough the IT function is almost always considered to be too expensive regardless of the business case or the criticality to today’s operations.

Only the very best who are innately suited to such challenges will survive and prosper. We cannot all be successful IT Managers any more than we can all aspire to be PM’s. Without wishing to darken anyone’s ‘horizon’, it is vital that we all learn to understand ourselves and our ultimate capabilities. Without that we are likely to condemn ourselves to a frustrating and unfulfilling existence; ‘Horses for Courses’.


Graham J.

Comments (2)

  1. Teri says:

    Is this an excuse for not trying?

  2. jointer says:

    Hmmm! If that is your impression Teri then I have seriously missed the mark. If you knew me personally you would know that the opposite is true. I always encourage people to achieve their potential and would do whatever I could to assist if asked.

    The point here is not one of trying or not trying but recognizing where one’s ‘place’ is. It is neither simple nor easy to reach or accept that realization. I have seen many unhappy people over my career because they were chasing the ‘wrong dream’.

    There are many reasons why we feel compelled to keep pushing ourselves and going forward; social, economic, personal, professional. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition. It is the motivator which keeps giving us a new target to aim for. However, misdirected or unrealistic ambition can only lead to disappointment and misery.

    Some of the same unhappy people that I mentioned above became totally different when they identified and accepted their role in life. That is the point that I was trying to make. It is rare as individuals that we can see ‘the wood for the trees’. That usually falls to an observer(s) whether it be a trusted friend or a professional. Even if we get good advice we may not yet have reached a point of maturity where we are able to accept it.

    It has to be one of the hardest things in life to accept that perhaps we are not destined for our ambitions. Those who truly accept it and focus on those things where they excel ultimately find fulfilment both personally and professionaly. Those who stubbornly refuse to accept their fate usually end up being bitter and resentful. They look at others and are convinced that they should be ‘there’ also.

    We all know that life isn’t fair so therefore there will be some true injustices. The ‘climbers’ of this world will do whatever it takes to ‘get there’ often at the expense of others. If that is someones road to contentment then it is unfortunate. However, my experience has also taught me that eventually such people often ultimately are seen for what they are.

    Hopefully I have now given sufficient clarification to show you my intent. I would never, ever excuse someone for not giving their best anymore than I would excuse myself!


    Graham J.

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