A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL MANAGEMENT BOATS
November 11, 2013 6 Comments
“If at first you don’t succeed, blame the fat nincompoop with bad breath who just got promoted over you.”
The phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” is most commonly attributed to President John F Kennedy, who used it in a speech in 1963 to counter criticism that a dam project that he was inaugurating was just being done as payback for political favours. However, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, revealed in his memoirs “A life at the edge of history” that he had actually plagiarised the phrase from the New England Chamber of Commerce who had it as a slogan.
It is a phrase that I have liked for a long time, less for its use in an economics discussion of free market policies but more in relation to how fast-growth industries have a way of lifting people well above their true competence levels, simply because demand far outstrips the availability of truly capable people.
This phrase resurfaced in my mind in the last few weeks as I started working on a speech that I have been invited to give at the 20th IT “old-timers” lunch which is held annually in Sydney Australia, the criteria for attendance being that you can show that you had worked with paper tape and/or punched cards during your career. This does mean that the lunch event increasingly resembles an outing from an old people’s home, as widespread use of the “Holerith cards” started to decline rapidly in the 1970s, meaning that those who worked with them commercially in the then called field of “Data processing” can now qualify for free bus travel in most countries. Those who can show that they worked seriously with paper tape as a commercial input medium, and who live in a Commonwealth country, will by now be starting to wonder about their ability to hold out long enough to get a congratulatory birthday telegram from Her Majesty the Queen.
I have realised that the idea of spending time with a large group of the aged is somewhat terrifying for me, as it is not something that features largely in my current life. My working with Hi Tech start-ups, my lecturing and my speeches tend all to be with younger groups of people, including my involvement with UBB (Bordeaux Rugby Club) which has given me some friends in their late twenties and early thirties who are only now starting to have children, whilst my chronological peers and I are all well into grand-children with some being even further along in the creation of multiple levels of generations.
However, having to spend a meal and an afternoon discussing prostates, joint pain and hip replacement with some old friends and colleagues is not what is really bothering me, as these are topics in which I am well versed. My dilemma is that I have been asked to discuss some of the great companies that I have worked for, and some of the great people that I have met during my 45 years in the Data Processing/IT/Hi-Tech industry (A rose by any other name …), and to make this speech light and amusing.
The first problem is that most of the “great companies” that I worked for have long gone to Tech-heaven having at some point dropped too short and too rigid an anchor chain to actually catch the rising tide, and thus were drowned instead. Davy Jones’ Locker is littered with the remains of great IT companies. The second problem I face is that for every outstanding individual that I have met, and there are many, or one that was there to give me a hand up when I needed it (and I know that there will be at least one in attendance at the lunch), or someone who I feel actually made a significant contribution to our industry, I keep coming up with many more people who at best were pretty average, but who rose to giddy heights as the industry exploded and struggled to be able to meet the demand for people at every level.
I know that this view now fits with my growing reputation as a “grumpy old man” but I just can’t get the idea out of my mind that a rising tide in a fast-growing industry actually does lift all the boats, but that if the industry had been more mature, many of the boats would have instead just run aground.
I guess that in my speech I could run through a list of some of the famous people that I have met over the last 45 years, but that just comes across as name-dropping, and as I said to President Obama just last week, I really hate name-droppers.
I also can’t really go on about some of the bosses that I have had over the years, as some of them may actually be there and they wouldn’t find it amusing, even though I have written about some of them in previous blog pieces. At least I am safe in the knowledge that even if they have read my blog, they probably would not have seen themselves reflected in my less than flattering descriptions. I guess my only real option is to be pleasant and ramble on for my allotted time about how privileged we all were to have been there when it all really began. At least this is the truth.
I am sure that the IT industry is not the only one that has this problem, as I have met incredibly senior but unimpressive executives in industries as diverse as Oil and Gas, Advertising and Airlines, being just a few examples of industries which had their spurts of growth at some stage in recent history. Even today, we have seen what happened when we allowed very average people to control the banking sector, and thus the global economy, whose only competence appears to have been the ability to live by the maxim “Greed is good”.
It seems to be a fact that when an industry is going through rapid growth, those who look good, who work on being highly visible, who can manage upwards, who can show that they fit in well with their superiors and who are seen as being able to protect the status quo are the ones who most often get promoted, rather than the game-changers, who tend to appear threatening to those above them.
The situation that this creates is best described in this old Irish saying “Nodding the head does not row the boat.”