Plutarch: Thoughts on People Management

Is it wrong to be right ?

Friday 2nd March 2018

As children and young adults we are taught that it matters to be right. If you don’t get the answer right in the exam, no marks. Too much of that and you fail. Even at university when one is supposed to explore arguments they tend to have to be considered right. Indeed with sciences there is no debate! Extreme high flyers therefore have generally experienced being more right than others all the way through their lives and have relied on this to get ahead.

But what if there are multiple right answers? Or the right answer changes constantly? Or if circumstances are such that only one person or a handful of people are allowed to be right? These circumstances may be recognised by many of you as the reality of operating at an increasingly senior level in business. The subtleties of being right change significantly once people reach board level.

As Alex Mowle, Talent Director at Liberty Global (owner of Virgin Media), puts it:
“with regard to talent, this question can be considered from two perspectives. Firstly, the degree to which someone is aware of their own drive to be right and how that may be interpreted by others. Secondly, in terms of values - whether or not they are prepared to prioritise something bigger than being right, e.g. enhancing vital relationships and/or the greater good of the organisation. Both of these factors are key in evaluating someone’s suitability for a senior level role.”

Being right also seems to matter less in strategy development than one might expect. Jack Bertram, who spent 14 years at McKinsey puts it thus “there is usually more than one successful business model in any given sector, so no one model can be “right” or “wrong”. Rather, effective strategy for a senior leader is setting out a clear and “good enough” vision that an organisation can get behind - and winning comes from fantastic execution against that while monitoring and adjusting direction as appropriate.” So it seems the bigger the strategic question, the less it’s about being right or wrong up front; rather, to thrive at this level, it’s best to focus on getting behind a plan that has momentum.

The process of becoming a mature leader for an organisation can involve letting go of the need to be right, the need for one’s own agenda to prevail. This could be viewed as noble, stemming from a willingness to forego a personal agenda for the sake of the entire organisation’s wellbeing. Viewed another way, it is a question of playing the long game from a career perspective.

Either way, as a CEO put it at a recent Hunter-Miller 'Breakfast Time' event, “you never want to be perceived as someone who puts themselves ahead of the success of the organisation.”

Plutarch in no way claims to offer comprehensive statistical reports – the absence of numbers reveals that much, and individual confidentially remains his priority. Nonetheless Hunter-Miller's vast network offers compelling anecdotal evidence, and some occasionally interesting insights.

What would you be interested to know? Get in touch.