Is it better to run an organisation well, or badly? Is it better to think and plan or hope for the best? Is it better to help leaders lead better, or simply leave them to it?
I’m assuming these questions have self-evident answers: it is better to lead an organisation well, think and plan and help leaders get better. But how can these things be achieved? Does business know best?
Many in the Church of England are currently expressing their dislike of the ‘Green Report’ which proposes a new strategy for ‘talent management’ in the Church. This will involve providing leadership development programmes for senior clergy (bishops, deans etc.) in partnership with leading business schools. In addition high potential younger clergy will be identified and actively developed with a view to preparing them for higher office. There are a number of specific objections to the report and the way the Church has handled its dissemination and implementation but the principal objection to the substance of it is this: the authors of the report are believed to have inappropriately applied ideas associated with business to the Church. The Church is not a business and many argue that adopting business practices violates its special identity. But for me, this is both true and not true.
There appear to me to be some questionable assumptions at work. One is that if you that if you say you want to improve your leaders’ capability you must mean you plan to adopt ideas and practices common in businesses. And the assumption has some foundation: anyone interested in improving organisational capability will look at business practice for the simple reason that people in businesses have, by and large, given most thought to the question of how to make organisations effective and efficient (do the right things and do them well) – presumably because their existence depends on this in a more immediate way than it does for other organisations. It is businesses that have most influenced and benefitted from the development of organisational studies.
A second assumption is that businesses are always instrumental in their outlook and always insincere when they suggest otherwise. This is not true in my experience. But neither is a third assumption that tends to go with it: that, however dubious business practices may be considered from the point of view of values, they ‘work’. I know from 16 years’ experience in consulting that the image of businesses as centres of sleek efficiency is simply wrong. Businesses, including big famous ones, are often not managed particularly well and are frequently more chaotic than anything else. I have consistently tried to convince business leaders that the instrumental, short-term remedies which tempt them (and leaders of all organisations) are self-defeating and a bad investment of time, money and energy. Learning from business requires discernment and, regrettably, I observe that when not-for-profit organisations, including the Church, borrow from business they often choose the worst rather than the best.
When organisational questions arise in the not-for-profit world views tend to be unhelpfully polarised and too focused on feelings about what is only one part of the large world of organisational theory and practice. We need to look more widely and deeply at the fundamentals of good management. This will involve asking how to run our organisation well and do it in a way that respects its culture, its purpose and its history. What is right in one organisation may not be right in another. And we should also ask what we can learn from our own history and experience: we may find we know more about some important areas of organisation than anyone else. Businesses should be asking what they can learn from the Church and other not-for-profit organisations – which, after all, tend to have much longer life spans than even exceptional companies. Not-for-profit organisations, including the Church, often talk as if they have a choice between importing business models wholesale or leaving it alone and hoping for the best. They don’t.
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