The handy life

INTERVIEW: Money is a means to bringing what is important to us as humans rather than an end in itself

INTERVIEW:Money is a means to bringing what is important to us as humans rather than an end in itself. But we have lost sight of that, management guru Charles Handy tells KATHY SHERIDAN

BUSWELLS HOTEL PATRON does a double-take. “That’s Charles Handy. I remember him from IMI conferences. For a management guru, he always looked surprisingly like a genteel Anglican priest.”

It turns out that Charles Handy actually considered becoming a priest. When his father – a minister archdeacon in Kildare – died, the son was astounded by the huge numbers who came to the funeral, talking about this wonderful man who had stood by them all through their lives. Handy junior listened and wondered: “How many people would come to my funeral?”

This might come across like a cheesy Father Trendy parable from some; not from him. And it has a bad ending. Two bishops refused to nominate him for theology college; he would be a wonderful bishop, they said, but would never get that far because he would be such a terrible curate in the East End.

Instead, they offered him a job as head of a college based in Windsor Castle which trained future bishops. He and his wife, Elizabeth, moved into a former palace of King Henry III, and he signed a contract offering a pleasing £3,200 per month, nearly as much as his previous job. Disastrously, when he looked properly at the contract – too late – the pay was £3,200 a year. “So we were very poor.” At this he laughs heartily and Elizabeth – all credit to her – joins in.

Sitting in the bustling hotel, listening to these stories of sudden career changes and impoverishing oversights, an unwary soul might be seriously misled. For Handy is no bumbling dreamer. Noted for his studies of organisations and his ideas on future work and business structures, he has been rated among the “Thinkers 50” (a private list of the most influential living management thinkers) and as the UK’s “leading management spokesperson” (The Economist’s Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus). He was among the handful chosen to write for the Harvard Business Review’s special 50th anniversary issue and has written at least 20 books, selling more than a million copies worldwide.

He forecast the rise of the “portfolio worker”, in which a person holds a number of jobs and clients and types of work at the same time, and the “shamrock organisation”, in which professional core workers, freelance workers and part-time/temporary routine workers each form a leaf of the shamrock.

But the really interesting thing about Charles Handy, the management guru, is that he is a reluctant kind of capitalist. Decades before the bubble, he was urging the business world to rethink the money-obsessed mindset of executives and to look beyond the obsession with shareholder value. In fact, the shareholders are not the owners of a firm, he points out as an aside. “They’re just like the punters who bet on a horse.”

Capitalism is just a stepping-off point for what really matters to human beings: their aspirations, families and sense of self-worth.

“My message was always that what business is about is creating things or services that are useful to people and will actually make the world a better place. And if you do that well and competently, you will make money. But the businesses got it the wrong way round.

“I am concerned that capitalism is eating itself,” he said all of 10 years ago, in an interview with Business Strategy Review. “I think money is an essential ingredient in successful societies. Most families that break down do so because the economics go wrong rather than that the love disappears. I never want to be heard to say that money is not important – but it is a means to another end. The danger with capitalism and with organisations is that money has become the end. We are just competing for who can get the most money . . . I find that deadening to the human spirit. You can never win that race.”

He has seen Ireland through all its phases, from “the really terrible place” he left behind in the 1950s, when “there were no jobs for an Anglo-Irish Protestant like me”, to the management conferences during the full-throttle Celtic Tiger, “and all those 35-year-olds with their two BMWs in the garage, house in the west etc, saying, ‘we’re all losing our traditional Irish values’.But they weren’t going to sell the BMWs. So there was this paradox and that was Ireland – people knowing deep down that this wasn’t good.”

He stumbled into success himself, he would have you believe. And Elizabeth made him do it. She is the indispensable managing partner. Without her, Charles would now, he claims, “be a very good golfer, very large and very drunk – because I would have retired from my job about 25 years ago, having been a rather bad oil executive.”

There have been many versions of Charles Handy, he says, “not all of which I was particularly proud”. Elizabeth, to whom he has been married for 50 years, will be nearby when he takes the stage in the Mansion House on behalf of Relationships Ireland – the relationships counselling service also celebrating its 50th year – to talk about the huge strains placed on families and couples struggling to adjust to the “new normal” wrought by modern workplace organisation and technology.

It’s one of the “useful things” they like to do. His uncle, Canon Handy, was one of the founders of Relationships Ireland. Co-incidentally, Elizabeth was a marriage counsellor with Relate for 12 years, but gave it up when she found herself “becoming really rather bossy and wanting to tell people to pull themselves together . . . I think I also ran out of challenge. If you do something for a long time, you get quite skilled at it.” By the sound of it, the pair have plenty of personal experience to bring to the Mansion House talk. Way back in the marriage, there was the version of Charles that was the “very bad” Shell oil executive. He can’t have been that bad because at 31, he was offered promotion to Shell’s managing director in Liberia. Elizabeth was appalled: “I said if you think I am going to stay married to a man who goes where he’s told to go and seems to have sold his whole life to people he’s never even met, who are going to tell him where to go and when to go, and what success means – which is climbing their ruddy ladder – you are very much mistaken.” So he resigned: “And now what am I supposed to do?” She said: “Well, I always wanted to be married to a professor.” And she just happened to know the wife of the man who was trying to establish the London Business School. Charles became a co-founder and helped set up the executive MBA programmes there, duly becoming a professor specialising in managerial psychology. So that worked well, then? Mmmh . . . After about 10 years of it, if the LBS had been a woman, Elizabeth says, she’d have spat in its face. He was never home. He looks rueful. “I often say I’ve been married twice to the same woman. My first marriage was a very trad one. I went out to work and never saw the children. I would come home late at night when the children had gone to bed and had left in the morning before they were up. And I slept at the weekends.” Then what? “I just told him he was becoming very boring,” she says.

So he resigned again, and that’s when he had the epiphany at his father’s funeral which ended in Henry III’s palace in Windsor Castle. A misunderstanding with his boss, the Dean of Windsor, resulted in his premature departure. No-one thinks that was funny, even now. Elizabeth had no job at the time. Neither had he. But then they thought – he was always being invited to speak at dinners; he just didn’t realise you could charge for that sort of thing. So Elizabeth took over. “She wrote to a lot of people and said ‘I think Professor forgot to tell you his fee’. And they started paying.”

His literary agent was sacked and she gradually became his managing partner. They struck a kind of post-nup. Since she wanted to return to college and become a photographer, they decided that she would manage his life for half the year and for the other half, he would be a photographer’s assistant, and in his “spare time do some writing”, as he puts it.

They agreed to share the housework and set strict limits on how much money would be enough. That was 35 years ago. She got her degree at the age of 50, the same day as their son got his from Cambridge.

He has entered his third age as a social philosopher, she as an accomplished photographer. Her most interesting images reflect her belief that each of us has at least three personas in life. Clearly fascinated by this, he notes that “the persona that’s most important [in the subject’s own eyes] at that time, they place closest to the photographer.”

In mock outrage, he notes that in Elizabeth’s own picture, her persona as his manager is almost a blur. When we speak, they are meeting people from Ballymun Regeneration to talk about a project to identify hidden leaders and create a photographic show around them. Some of her work will be on display in the Mansion House next Thursday, June 28th.

Their life together is useful and enviable. Back in that decade-old interview about the business world, he said: “It’s a question of philosophy, not of economics. You do have to say, what is my life about? How do I count success? How do I want to be remembered? What difference do I want to make to the world? Oh – and by the way – I need some money. But how much money and what am I going to sacrifice if I want more?”

If only the world had listened.

Charles Handy will speak on The Changing Shape of Work and Home in the Mansion House, Dublin next Thursday, June 28th, at 6:30pm.

Contact Relationships Ireland (01-644 3909), or see