Are you a punk or are you a Punk?

Punk
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Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.

There’s a brilliant line in the classic superhero film, Kick Ass: "There’s no room for punks in suits. Just real heroes who can really kick ass."

I often finish my keynote speeches with this quote. It’s a great way to wrap up and sends everyone away punching the air and whooping. Not really. This is the UK, folks. But they like it.

Should there be more punks in business...?

Anyway, I started thinking a few months ago about whether there is room for more Punks in business. Not upstart kids, dressed like rebels but really, inside, covering up who they really are and their deep sense of inadequacy.

Not the “do you feel lucky, punk?” kind of punk. No, the kind of true Punks who express who they are and what matters to them.

The true Punks of the ‘70s weren’t trying to conform to a fashion, they weren’t trying to fit in, they weren’t trying to please anyone although, at the same time, they weren’t intentionally trying to shock either.

Punks aren’t interested in being normal. They are focused on what they believe in and in finding ways to express that.

They were just trying to be true to themselves outside and in.

"Lowercase" punks

In business there are a lot of lowercase punks. The slick suit and the expensive watch may be intended to make them stand out, give the impression of confidence, gravitas and status.

But external manifestations of individuality belie the fact that these punks want to be part of the game.

They want the trappings of authority – a big team, a big job title, the right to overrule, invitations to high level meetings out of which nothing will be communicated because “it’s too sensitive”.

And, in a way, it’s not surprising. In most companies, most people don’t have much freedom.

In business there are a lot of lowercase punks - the slick suit and the expensive watch...

They don’t get to make many significant decisions. They don’t get to shape their environment. The organization gets in the way of them being able to do their best work. Their world becomes smaller and smaller. So small things start to matter.

It starts to matter whether you get the credit. It starts to matter whether you get the better desk in the corner by the window.

It starts to matter where you get to park your car in the car park.

I heard recently of a company that rewards the employee of the month with a parking space near the front entrance of the building, next to the CEO for whom this also seems to matter.

Competing for little trophies becomes one of the only aspects of work you can influence.

And business becomes political. The game playing is everywhere.

All of the “power” that punks seek to accumulate actually forms a trap around them.

I coach a senior leadership team for a global manufacturing organization and at their last offsite the discussion kept being pulled back to speculation about the games various members of other functional leadership teams were playing and how to outplay them.

Dragging the conversation back to what really matters and how to stay true to that in their dealings with their colleagues, when the environment is thick with intrigue and maneuvering, was tough. To join in would feel more normal. 

So what would a Punk do...?

Punks aren’t interested in being normal. They are focused on what they believe in and in finding ways to express that.

If we apply this to leadership, a Punk leader will not play the conventional games of business. He or she is not interested in gossip (which is what a lot of business politics is) or influencing techniques.

A Punk leader checks in with his or her sense of what’s right.

And couldn’t we do with more of that?

It’s very comfortable to run a business where people are good boys and girls.

Questioning why we all work so hard without seeming to make much progress; looking at the conventions of work (meetings, working hours, offices, corporate dress codes) and asking whether they’re really helping us serve our customers; being curious about how other industries, other cultures, other institutions operate, the values that guide them and the way they measure success.

Punk leaders are interested in all of this.

All of the “power” that punks seek to accumulate actually forms a trap around them.

Giving up the best desk and the best parking space and the sense of superiority that comes from having access to information no one else has is hard when you’ve experienced it and when you’ve created a sense of who you are and what you’re worth based on these rewards.

It’s hard then to call them in to question, knowing that you might not like the answer.

But the Punk leader isn’t concerned about an external accumulation of rewards.

That’s not to say he or she isn’t rewarded.

Experience and expertise often bring with them a bigger salary and a broader scope of work. There’s no need to join a commune and reject a fair reciprocation from your hard work and the results you’ve helped generate.

But what’s different about the Punk leader is that these were never the motivators and decisions were rarely if ever made out of fear of losing them.

If we don’t want to create more punks, but our organisations are in serious need of more Punks, we have to look at how we collude with the system.

Punks – individuals who stand out from the crowd - won’t play the game.

When we reward game playing or, even, when we play a part in creating the games, we can’t be surprised when people turn their attention in that direction.

It’s very comfortable to run a business where people are good boys and girls, where they listen attentively and don’t make trouble.

Most systems and processes, reward schemes and promotion programmes favour those who conform.

And, as a result, they create a bunch of punks, little gangs of self-serving individuals who focus on what they can get from the company and not what they can give.

Punks – individuals who stand out from the crowd, won’t play the game, stand a little apart from the procedures and processes – tend to flummox the system.

They don’t play nice and can even be seen as trouble-makers (there are a few trouble makers in most companies, of course but, like the punks, they are also motivated by recognition and attention, just diverting their energies towards evil rather than towards the more benign activities and behaviours I’ve talked about here).

No, the Punks in your business are those who don’t let their own reward become part of their thinking.

They’re not making trouble so they can get something.

They’re saying what they are saying because someone should say it. They don’t have a chip on their shoulder. They just see things more clearly because they’ve been standing back and observing.

If fact, it’s the perfect place for HR to stand. If you’re focused on what’s in it for you or the risk it represents for you it’s almost impossible to see all the options clearly.

You’re too invested in the result. But when you stand back and observe from a distance, clean of an ego-attachment to the badges of status, you can be more neutral, more in service of the bigger picture and do what’s right.

Be less punk. Be more Punk.

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

“Agent provocateur”, Blaire Palmer, is a former BBC Today programme journalist who, for the last 15 years, has been coaching and provoking CEOs and leadership teams to step up and drive change in their organisations.

The author of 3 books on leadership and success, Blaire was one of the first accredited executive coaches in Europe. Blaire founded That People Thing in 2012 and now works with clients including Roche, Airbus, Mattel, DX and Manchester United, designing and delivering programmes that bring about sustainable change in leadership and culture with measureable commercial benefit.

Direct, challenging, warm and funny, Blaire is also is a keynote conference speaker, addressing audiences around the world about how leadership is changing in the 21st century.

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01st Nov 2016 13:22

Very interesting, and it rings true.

I was lucky, I think, in that the first boss I ever had after I came out of University was also the best boss I've ever had. I was working for a large Telecomms company and my manager was a guy called Tony Meggitt. (I only mention his name in case someone who knows him happens to read this and can pass on my regards and thanks!)

He was the Operations Manager for our franchise (which was one of about half a dozen franchises in the south), and I was the Ops Admin. He had about, at a guess, 30 or so staff working for him, directly or indirectly. But prior to that, he'd been high up in management at BT, with several thousand staff under him. He'd left that job, he told me, because when you get to be that senior, there's not much room for anything other than the job in your life.

What that meant was that he felt absolutely no need to prove himself to anyone - he'd already been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

So, at a practical level, he became a Punk. An edict would come down from head office about the way the company would operate, and he'd say "No - that's ***, and I ain't doin' it" (in his broad Yorkshire accent). I'd say "Tony - you can't say that, it's what we've been told to do!" but sure enough, he'd go off in his own direction, and our franchise would be the one standing out from the herd...

Lo and behold, a few weeks later would invariably come another missive from on high. "We've decided that we're going to make a change to our policy on X and do things differently" - and it would be a change to make everyone else do things the way we'd always been doing them.

When I went for my interview, Tony said "I don't believe in kow-towing to management. If I'm talking ***, you just tell me - 'Tony, that's ***'. " It's an easy thing to say at interview, but it was they way he actually behaved too. And because you could see from his actions that he didn't believe in egos, there was never any problem with being true to what you thought and going against him.

Funnily enough, in 18 months there, I don't think I ever did need to call him out for talking rubbish. But I've never forgotten how good he was, and I've always wanted to model my style of work and management on him.

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to andrewmrichards
02nd Nov 2016 09:18

Glad to hear you had such a good manager to aspire to - too often even the kindest of people get stuck in a didactic or repetitive mode without asking questions, so this just goes to show that having your own mind and going against the grain sometimes can have a really inspirational effect!

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