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Support for whom?

2003 October 10
by Malcolm Sleath

When I first started out in the business of training and developing people I was very much influenced by the idea of using contracts as the basis of the work I did. As a trainer I had a contract with a client organisation. They usually wanted me to bring about a change in the way people went about their work. The ultimate justification for their investment would be an improvement in shareholder value or profits per partner.

For example, let’s imagine Peter has been promoted to be the manager of a factory making concrete paving blocks. His company thinks he should attend a management course to help him broaden his perspective. My contract is with the company to help Peter take a ‘helicopter view’ of his role, and develop a practical action plan based to improve the performance of the plant and its people.

As we get into the programme, it becomes clear that Peter’s area manager used to manage the same factory. Peter is concerned at how much time his manager is still spending on his old patch. Not only is he getting in the way (the area manager expects to sit in his old office to make calls to other plant managers) but also Peter is worried that his authority is being undermined, because it looks as if his boss does not trust him to be left alone to get on with his job. In addition, Peter wants to introduce some changes to working methods that he knows his boss resisted when he was in charge of the plant.

I now have to think about Peter. His standing with his boss is at stake. If he deals with this issue badly, it could affect his future career prospects, even tenure in his current post. As I see it, I have a contract with Peter to help him negotiate his way through this situation in a way that is constructive for him. After all, he is the one who is going to take the risk of trying out a new strategy. Of course, I can try and wriggle out of this by saying that I only presented Peter with a few options, and the options might even have come from his fellow course participants, and not me. But I don’t buy that.

There is a third contract that is more significant than either of those to which I am a party. That is the contract between Peter and the company. So now we have a neat little triangle. I am at one corner, Peter is at another, and the company is at the third. If we are not careful, this gives us a ready-made scenario to act out the roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer. (The drama comes when the roles switch. For examples, see any soap opera.)

Of the trainers and consultants who give a second thought to this issue, and not all of them do, many deal with it by saying they are simply teaching Peter to do the ‘right thing’. I happen to think that is sloppy thinking. Who decides what is ‘the right thing’? Me? The company? The HR executive or line manager who hired me?

No. The only person who can decide on the right thing is Peter. He has to make an informed decision, based on his contract with the company, and take a broad enough view to see past the currently limited perspective of his boss. To do that safely, he also has to negotiate with his boss to resolve the way the current situation is cramping his style.

So, in terms of The Support Economy, to whom am I offering my support? I think it is Peter. In this case not as an individual, but in his professional role as a manager, acting as the custodian of shareholder’s funds. In order to carry out that role, he has to survive in it, and that will involve influencing and negotiating with a wide range of people, including his boss.

If Peter had come to me as an individual, would the contract have been different? Certainly. Would the outcomes have been the same? I honestly don’t know. But my hunch is that the days of what I see as the old three-way contract are numbered.

If the trend to the individuation of consumption continues, the Peters of this world will take more responsibility for their personal development. They will see it as part of a lifetime investment, and will look for coherence. It will become more like life coaching. Who will fund it? Perhaps Peter’s company will agree to pay for training that they see as being in their interest, but generally adopt a hands-off approach unless there are specific technical inputs required to do with systems and the like. Maybe ‘training leave’ will become a reality. Perhaps the tax allowances for training will shift from the company to Peter.

The only thing that I am certain about, is that whatever mental gymnastics I perform to sort out my contractual obligations, my psychological consumer is Peter. If my inputs are any good, they will help him make better sense of his life, and that’s the project he cares about most of all.

This article was inspired by The Support Economy.