Malcolm’s Monkey

Some years ago, I was recruited to work as Centre Director for a UK-based, English language teaching summer school.*

Prior to commencing the courses at the individual centres, the directors and managers met for training (probably what would be known as ‘on-boarding’ in some environments).

Good preparation is vital for these summer schools to run well. After the management training, everyone goes to the schools (usually boarding schools) and has then to set up a school within a school, virtually from scratch, within the space of a few days. Not for the fainthearted!

This includes having to set up systems and good relationships with the on-site staff; getting an office, teachers’ room, multiple classrooms and activity rooms set up. Then there’s about 48 hours to onboard staff (usually 20–25 when I did it), many of whom are young and inexperienced in their new roles and can find the situation quite daunting.

This is all a challenge. But then, just about when everyone is settling in, a few hundred teenagers and a dozen or so adult leaders arrive to ‘test’ that everything works! If everyone is not well prepared, things can rapidly spin out of control.

As a result, and because many summer school managers have limited experience of management, the wise directors at our head office had decided to organise some general leadership training, on top of the summer school specifics.

It goes to show something that out of a full day of training there is only one session that I remember well. It remains one of my most memorable learning experiences. There’s a monkey that keeps reminding me.

I remember the content. I still have a photocopy of the text on which the session as based. I remember we sat at group tables in a large room in a hotel. I remember the balcony outside that room overlooking the sea. And I remember the man who led the session: Malcolm.

Malcolm began the session by handing everyone a small, cuddly monkey. A stuffed one. Obviously.

We then proceeded to discuss the importance of delegation and how to empower employees to take responsibility and deal with issues themselves as they come up. The aim of which being that leaders do not become overwhelmed and, therefore, remain in control of their working time. This is probably the most important lesson a manager in an intensive, high-pressure environment can learn.

In a summer school, a micro-manager will cause stress, won’t be able to deal with situations effectively, will soon become overwhelmed and will probably quit. I’ve seen that happen a few times. I’m pleased to say that I always managed to survive!

The session was based on a well-known Harvard Business School essay which equates problems with monkeys on your back. The idea being that the monkey needs to be cared for and its care depends on who accepts responsibility.

A manager who consistently offers to deal with things on behalf of employees will have very little time left. A manager should help employees deal with monkeys themselves. In doing so, the manager retains control of their own time. Gradually, the employees become more able to take responsibility and take care of monkeys on their own.

“The first order of business is for the manager to enlarge his or her discretionary time by eliminating subordinate-imposed time. The second is for the manager to use a portion of this newfound discretionary time to see to it that each subordinate actually has the initiative and applies it.”

By William Oncken, Jr.
Donald L. Wass

For employees, if they always have to refer to management, they won’t be able to do their jobs properly and will cause frustration and delays. They also won’t learn. Some of their decisions may not be ideal, but they’ll learn from feedback.

That’s another key part of the leadership process: allow space for learning through experience. And any staff making bad decisions will quickly stand out and can be given support and mentoring.

So what was it that was so memorable about this learning experience? Probably two things: firstly the monkey, as a novelty and the fact I’ve still got it. But second, and probably most importantly, is that this training was directly relevant, timely and something on which I could employ as part of my leadership practice immediately, while reflecting on my performance.

The monkey still sits on my desk, as you can see in the photo! Thanks for the memories, Malcolm. And the monkey.

*If this isn’t your field, just think of those gangs of teenagers wearing matching backpacks walking around London, Cambridge, Oxford, York, Canterbury and other famous UK cities during the summer months.

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