October 13, 2021

Is ‘being corporate’ preventing you from seeing with fresh eyes?

By Tony Boobier

Following my review of Edward Tufte’s latest book, I’ve been challenging myself & guest bloggers to see with fresh eyes, resulting in this post on ‘being corporate’.

In past posts, we’ve reflected on the obscuring role of biases or failing to listen well. But, what does such a visual challenge (see with fresh eyes) have to do with a word like corporate? Well, guest blogger Tony Boobier has spent most of his working life inside large corporations. So, if anyone can answer that question it’s Tony.

In his latest guest blog post, Tony (author, mentor & industry commentator) turns his attention to what it means to be corporate. Making the case that such cultural conditioning can get in the way of the fresh vision we are seeing. Plus, Tony includes a beautiful video to watch about ducks, which brings to life one of Kierkegaard’s parables. So settle down for some thinking & seeing…

My name’s Tony & I’m an ex-Corporateholic

I am no longer corporate and I am now free to think independently. I don’t want to be deliberately provocative but that’s what being non-corporate allows me to do best. Gone are the days when my presentations and press releases had to be vetted to make sure that they were ‘on message’.

What do we mean by “being corporate“, why should it influence what we do and perhaps also how we think? The standard meaning of being corporate is that of belonging to a large group or organisation which collectively acts like one. Its origins are in the Latin corporare which means to form into a single body. We think also about ‘corporate culture’ which comprises the beliefs and attitudes that characterise an organisation. Putting it differently, it’s simply “The way that we do things around here“.

To be honest, being corporate is a comfortable way of working. Being in a corporation means that the hardest part, which is that of thinking ‘why’ we do things, is left to someone else. It doesn’t mean that any form of thinking is avoided, it’s just that the process of thinking has to sit within the agreed corporate framework and strategy.

Encouraging freer thinking with ducks

Some organisations have deliberately tried to encourage their staff to think differently. IBM for example have a concept called ‘Wild Ducks’ which was a term coined by the former IBM Chairman Thomas Watson Jr, and there was even a movie made about it. IBM100 – Films The expression was based on a story by Danish philosopher and author called Søren Kierkegaard. It’s about a wild goose that tries to persuade some tame geese on the lake to fly with him during migration, but the tame geese thought that they knew better. Wearing his philosopher’s hat, Kierkegaard recognised that a tame goose never becomes wild, but a wild goose can certainly become tame. He also went on to say that as soon as the wild goose feels any control being exerted over it by the tame geese, that it should fly away and migrate.

What does this mean to us in terms of being part of a corporate culture, and being able to see the world with fresh eyes? Sometimes it requires employees to exhibit behaviours that sit outside the normal corporate framework, and which might even be threatening to an organisation. That needn’t always be the case, as businesses are often keen to find passionate people who are prepared to challenge the status quo so as to improve service or customer experience. But in a positive rather than a disruptive sort of way.

To be successful in this approach not only requires being open-minded to change and having an obsession with the customer but also being able to compliantly navigate through the organisational framework. It might perhaps feel at times to be walking a corporate tightrope.

The views from inside-out and outside-in

For a large part of my professional career, I have worked within various corporate cultures where I was given a job to do and did it to the best of my ability. All without really challenging myself about the culture. Maybe I was just lucky but where I felt uncomfortable with strategies or cultures that I was unable to change then I just moved on. Some might say that I just ‘migrated’.

In more recent times my professional life has been one of sitting outside corporations yet with the benefit of looking at them from a distance. Of course, there are some things that I miss from being inside the corporate world. IT help-desks and subsidised medical cover, for instance. But being on the outside seems to give me greater latitude both for personal reflection and scope to challenge the status quo. The ‘corporate lines’ which I choose to work to are the ones I choose to personally draw.

Sitting outside the corporate structure may not be for everyone. But it seems to me that there is some virtue in being able to take time out to think about these things.

Have you tried a sabbatical?

One way perhaps is to take a sabbatical. This allows employees to look at the world of work with fresher eyes. It’s an idea that seems to have fallen out of fashion but remains critically important. Of course, not everyone can have the luxury of this sort of career break. Although perhaps lockdown-enforced home-working might in some way have provided some sort of ‘virtual sabbatical’. Perhaps that’s one of the less obvious reasons that so many people now seem to want to change their jobs post-pandemic.

Being independently minded doesn’t necessarily mean being independently employed. But the ability to think impartially without being constrained by existing views on business has become a virtue that is increasingly important.

Thanks, Tony, for those thoughts. For those seriously considering his suggestion of a sabbatical, I recommend reading the advice that Michael Hyatt has published on this topic (in both his blog & podcast). Perhaps such a break is the most powerful way to have a reset of both your thinking & your seeing. What do you think?