Individuality can banish the downturn blues

Lynda Gratton's new book, Glow: How You Can Radiate Energy, Innovation and Success , was written before the crunch, but many will find its subject - self-help in a globalised and corporate world - perfectly suited for the times.

IN BB KING’s song Recession Blues, the singer is about to (guess what) lose his baby because he can no longer afford to give her what she wants. Won’t someone go to Washington, he pleads in the last verse, to ‘get me out of this misery’.

Powerlessness corrupts. As recession brutally reveals, helplessness is what a century of wage work and increasingly abstract, remote management has left increasing numbers of people with – and, it is now clear, not just the working classes. Hence the unprecedented wave of outrage at City bankers, financiers who casually offshore themselves to avoid paying for the wreckage they have brought down on others, and MPs with their tragically revealing expenses.

After anger, frustration and the realisation that the only people anyone is going to Washington to bail out is themselves, what then? Time to get on your bike and take your destiny in your own hands. Lynda Gratton’s new book, Glow: How You Can Radiate Energy, Innovation and Success , was written before the crunch, but many will find its subject – self-help in a globalised and corporate world – perfectly suited for the times, and the positive message of individual agency at least a pinprick of light in the surrounding gloom. Why do some people radiate energy and optimism and attract other people to their projects? Can such qualities be created? And how do you deal with a situation that suppresses rather than encourages them, as many companies unfortunately do?

These seem simple ideas, and some people have been put off by the heavy emphasis with they are presented ( Glow always capitalised and in italics, for example). But don’t be misled. Gratton is no frothy new ager. You don’t get to be a director of a major consultancy at the age of 30 by being soft-minded, nor to be a professor at London Business School, where she has for some years been grappling with difficult issues of management practice (which is what she is professor of), rather than theory.

Glow is in this lineage. Whereas her earlier book, The Democratic Enterprise , as its name suggests, explored the implications of freeing up the company as a whole, and 2007’s Hot Spots dealt with firing the energy and creativity of groups, Glow turns the spotlight on the ultimate unit of management, the individual.

Gratton concedes there are many self-help books – but most of them leave out the context. She thinks people need to be ‘much more adult’ about the employment relationship. ‘Many of us are going to have to work till we’re 70,’ she says. ‘Work is it. So you’d better find somewhere where it’s fun and interesting.’ If the context doesn’t allow the individual to flourish, cut your losses and move. Project work, enabled by technology, makes this more feasible, she suggests.

But it’s also about taking responsibility. In far too many organisations, management absorbs energy, sucking the life out of groups and work. Gratton argues that by co-operating with others, ‘jumping across worlds’ (really networking to multiply the number of options and sources of inspiration), and setting audacious goals, backed up by supporting activities, such as sharing information, conversation, and asking questions, it can be consciously generated. ‘ Glow is the small actions people can take that add up to something larger,’ she says. The collective result is what in her earlier book she termed ‘hot spots’, those teams or groups that mysteriously flare up, radiate heat and light – and all too often die away again.

Do ‘quiet’ ideas such as co-operation and networking stand a chance against the stereotypes of competition and get ahead at any cost (as in the hideous caricature of business that is The Apprentice ), particularly in today’s hard times? Isolated individuals face a perilous future in global competition, responds Gratton. The corporation on the other hand is all about combination – collaborating to do things jointly that are beyond the scope of individuals on their own.

As to how her approach works in practice, though this was not part of her research, a number of companies seem to embody the ‘glow’ principles almost exactly. One is WL Gore, maker of the hi-tech fabric in the new folding roof over Wimbledon’s Centre Court. There are no titles or conventional lines of command at Gore, where the only way of becoming a leader is to attract followers. If a project can’t attract people to work on it, then it doesn’t get done. The Brazilian company Semco runs on similar self-organising lines. Both are highly successful both are besieged by job applicants.

Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence. But, pace BB King, they and other co-operative companies suggest that fatalism is not the only response to a difficult world. If you accept you have a part in shaping an organisation you would like to work in – and would want your children to join – then behaving in at least some of the ways described in Glow would be a start.

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