Jim Duffy: Not too many sociopaths at the top table, please

'Our big corporates are awash with power struggles,' writes Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth
'Our big corporates are awash with power struggles,' writes Jim Duffy. Picture: Ian Howarth
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Maybe it’s just the nature of working in a corporate environment that breeds competitive tension between colleagues.

For many who go to work each day, they buy into the values that are written on the wall or spouted at away days and Top 500 events.

Our big corporates are awash with power struggles

Someone somewhere has crafted these values and has spent time and money building them into the company framework and culture. They are important and create a quasi social contract between colleagues, customers, suppliers etc. You will have heard values-led words before – they are higher purpose statements. But not everybody wants to embrace them or live them. There are those lurking amongst you who – despite all the training, away days and culture building – will always be in it for themselves. They always want to be first among equals.

Getting to the top in any organisation that you have not created yourself is not easy. If you join a company at a certain level, you have to work out the politics. Like every organisation there will be some who have their own favourites. There will be cliques that you can spot and those that lurk in dark places where you cannot. There will be those who share the same school tie and you will not fit into that club if you did not play rugby there. Even the university or clubs you attended at university can have meaning. So, understanding all of this is important, if you want to be first among equals, rise to the top and lead.

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I have no doubt the old boys network is still alive and well and one old boy will pick his successor as he mirrors himself. And I have no doubt that the guy who sees himself as first among equals will use all of these when and where he can to become top doggy. You probably know a few of these types. You may see yourself in this description. As an entrepreneur, I naturally gravitate to first among equal behaviours: most probably because I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. I am not saying having them around a company is right or wrong. What I am saying is that they exist and are needed to shake things up every now and then.

When I worked in corporate land (admittedly for only a year), I was lucky enough to attend a Top 100 where we all spent two days together in Toronto on a learning journey with each other. McKinsey were facilitating the learnings and the topic was: the granularity of growth. I was less interested in the content and boring fancy graphs and more interested in who was who – who was the CEO eyeing up as part of his inner sanctum. Boy was it interesting. I had to present a 20-minute talk on our acquisition strategy. I just went for it and obviously hit the mark – as I got the first round of applause in the place and it was day two. I came off stage feeling quite smug.

As I said, first among equals. But, what I did not recognise, being a newby in corporate land, is that I had just put a big target on my back! As I basked in the afterglow of the presentation, I failed to take cognisance of the other (first among equal) colleagues, who now had my demise plotted. Oh dear… I didn’t survive long after that. I’m glad in a way. But, the lesson for us all in this short plenary session is that despite all the team building and culture vulture stuff, there will always be lurkers.

They will raise their heads above the parapet at the right time as they continue their ascendency. They will snipe at each other virtually, while they move in for the kill when the timing is right. They want to lead. They want to be top dog. They want to be who they are. I’m just fine with this, so long as they are not too sociopathic in their approach. Our big corporates are awash with power struggles and there will be blood on the walls every now and then. First among equals is a trait that causes change. Change can be positive and negative.

But, let’s watch out that some of the great talent is not chopped at the knees too soon. Every now and then it’s good to fit in and flow with colleagues who believe in what it says on the wall, despite the fact it means nothing to you…

• Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark

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