Put aside for a moment those weighty studies of strategy and leadership from the bookstore’s business section. Close the Harvard Business Reviewapp on your iPad. Discard temporarily the theories about human resources and industrial psychology. Instead, rejoin reality.
Unless you own it, if you work in a company you will have a boss. The boss tells you what do and when to do it, and kicks your behind when it doesn’t happen. Your boss also has a boss and, depending on how high you’ve managed to reach on the corporate food chain, that boss will also have a boss. All the way up to the Big Boss.
The Big Boss does all manner of things that you’ll read about in the pages of those books and magazines you’ve just put back on the shelves, at least for the time being. But perhaps the most important is that he or she sets the tone in the company. Not unlike a headmaster or headmistress at school.
What does that mean? What do we understand by that phrase “sets the tone”?
The business books would describe something they call “culture”, which refers to “the way we do things round here” and they’d be about right. But there’s a little more to it than that. For example, if your Big Boss is very formal, it’s quite likely that the other Biggish Bosses who surround him or her will also become very formal. That can permeates down into the organisation – your boss, who aspires to one day join the other Biggish Bosses, will also wear a suit to work. It won’t be long before you find yourself also knotting a tie every morning.
If the Big Boss turns out to be a cricket fanatic, don’t be surprised if corporate sponsorship is directed towards the Wanderers or Newlands. If he or she plays golf – as a very large number of Big Bosses seem to – you won’t go far wrong if you, too, acquire a set of clubs.
This is human nature and it’s a rare individual who is able to stand up to the Big Boss and say that formality at these levels went out in the 19th Century or that golf is a fantastic waste of time and company money.
It’s even more problematic when the Big Boss is a crook. When the facts of the case are not in dispute – when a very learned judge has found that the Big Boss did receive a large sum of money as part of a shady business deal. When you and everyone else in the company can see that the money in question was a bribe. And when the Big Boss has managed to convince, or coerce, the Board of Directors to appoint him as Big Boss, despite the cash he took.
For example, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if that’s what happened right at the top of the company, then the Directors must also be in on the action, mustn’t they? And if they’re getting a slice of the pie, what about your own boss? In fact, if that’s “the way we do things round here”, then maybe you should also be holding out your hand for a bit extra?
And when someone at the top of the company says they’re “serious about stamping out corruption right through the organisation”, you can hear the laughter ripple through the cubicle farm.
All because it’s the boss that sets the tone.