I went to a dinner on Tuesday night. The host was Vistage, an international chief executives’ organisation with 60-odd groups in the UK. Each group meets monthly under the guidance of a trained chairperson. Members discuss challenges and seek advice and support from one another. They also invite guests from a roster of ‘expert’ speakers – of which I am now one, though with just two engagements under my belt, still very much a novice.
It was a jolly occasion. After drinks and dinner there were awards for the best speakers and chairpeople in a number of categories. Then a small group of closet rockers removed their jackets, loosened their ties, strapped on guitars and kicked up dust with an hour of old Chuck Berry and Rolling Stones numbers.
I knew very few people, apart from some of the staff and my friend Paul Pinson, who is a group chairman and who originally introduced me to the organisation. Confronted with dark suits and a sea of silvering hair, I felt at first as if everyone but me was in possession of some kind of shared and secret knowledge, while my own ‘expertise’, in business storytelling, would at any minute be unmasked.
But as the evening wore on and I talked to individuals, the impression grew that these were open, intelligent, committed people who, whether chairpeople or speakers, were passionate about helping others develop their businesses and themselves. I learned that for many this was a third or even fourth career, taking them well past normal retirement age with work, only modestly paid, that they continued to find engaging and energising.
Many of the chairpeople who stepped up to receive an award said that running their groups had been the most rewarding thing they had ever done. Many of the speakers were equally impassioned about their contact with the groups. There was, I thought as I eventually went to bed, a sense of decency about the whole affair, and a good deal of the kind of kindness for which I have named this blog. This was the emotionally literate end of business, where success tends to come with a measure of humility, a recognition that we are all fragile, vulnerable and fallible.
Returning on the train the next day I found myself thinking about the character of Ninian in my novel The Witness. Based on the son of old friends, Ninian has Fragile X syndrome, a condition similar in many respects to autism. His universe is almost entirely free of emotion in the sense that you or I understand it, and certainly free of empathy. The external world arouses no feelings in him, or at least none that he can name. The framework that holds him together is constructed of procedures, familiar actions repeated, regularly occurring events – from which he draws what comfort he is capable of recognising.
It struck me that autism offers a good metaphor for the kind of business or organisational behaviour that sits at the opposite end of the scale from what I had witnessed the previous evening. A good example came to light during our Dark Angels course last week. My fellow tutor Stuart Delves talked about the insurance industry’s practice of running ‘existence checks’ on policyholders over a certain age. This involves sending out official letters to customers asking them to verify that they are still alive with the signature of a referee such as an MP or lawyer or other dignitary as accessible to some elderly policyholders as the man in the moon.
A triumph of process over any kind of human sensitivity, this sits squarely at the ‘autistic’ end of the behavioural spectrum. But whereas the Ninians of this world must learn, if they can, to live with their condition, businesses have the capacity to change. They just need to find the will. Organisations such as Vistage can help them.