Fred was the managing director of a large software company.  He cut an unlikely figure – entirely bald, enormously fat, with tie askew and an unbuttoned jacket revealing a pair of wide braces holding up his trousers.  He was also extraordinarily uncouth, peppering his sentences with expletives regardless of his audience. By no stretch of the imagination could Fred be said to be politically correct or to display any sensitivity or interpersonal skills.

But the man had a brilliant mathematical brain. In the evenings he would wander into a nearby office and challenge anyone there to a game of bridge or chess – for high stakes, naturally.  His prowess at these games was legendary.  He never lost. Of course, it is possible that he always triumphed because his victims feared that beating Fred might be career-limiting!

One day at a board meeting it was decided to establish a management training unit. Fred was party to the decision even though he himself was self-taught, knew nothing about training and didn’t hold it in high regard.  He merely shrugged his vast shoulders and let it through on the nod. There was surplus money in the budget and if a consensus of his directors wanted it, then what the hell. The company had never had any sort of systematic approach to management training before.  They occasionally sent managers  to outside courses, but this was done in a haphazard way, and no one ever bothered to evaluate the results.

An area sales manager, Hugh, was appointed to set up the unit.  He too, had few ideas on how to go about this, so he engaged a consultant to help him establish a strategy and recruit some trainers.  Since they were starting from scratch, the consultant recommended that each of the directors should be interviewed to gather their ideas on priorities for the proposed unit.

A structure for the interviews was agreed. Hugh would give the opening spiel and then hand over to the consultant to ask the questions.  The first question was to be:  ‘Now that there is to be a management training unit, what difference would you like it to make?’  The consultant told Hugh that this was a splendid open-ended question that would start the directors talking.  All they had to do was put the question, listen hard, make notes on the directors’ answers and, perhaps, ask a few supplementary questions.  The directors were to be interviewed one by one, with Fred saved until last.

The interviews went according to plan.  Everyone had sensible comments to offer in response to the open-ended question and Hugh and the consultant were able to draw up a preliminary list of priorities for the proposed management training unit.  Then it was time to interview Fred and put the finishing touches to the plans.

The consultant hadn’t met Fred before but had already heard company gossip about his unconventional appearance and ways.  An appointment was made for the interview to take place at head office – a grand Georgian building in central London.  Hugh was understandably nervous and it didn’t help that they were made to wait in an anteroom before being ushered into Fred’s presence.

There he sat, looking remarkably like a Chinese fertility god, behind a vast desk covered in papers.  Alarmingly, his eyes were shut and he made no attempt to meet and greet.  Hugh gave his usual spiel – faster than he had before.  Fred sat, eyes shut.  No nods, no anything.  Then, undaunted, the consultant asked the pre-arranged question.  ‘Now that there is to be a management training unit, what difference would you like it to make?’

Nothing happened.  The eyes stayed firmly shut.  Hugh prodded the consultant (it would have been better if he had prodded Fred!) urging him to say something else.  But the consultant felt stubborn.  The question had worked well with half a dozen directors, why shouldn’t it work on Fred?  What was so special about this man?

Eventually Fred opened his eyes and spoke.  He said, ‘I wish my fucking managers would spend the company’s fucking money as if it was their fucking own’.

His eyes then closed again, and that was that.


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