Friday 19 January 2018

Handy number; the social philosopher who predicts the future for business

Irish-born author offers inspiration to those seeking a second career when they reach middle age, writes Thomas Molloy

Charles Handy, inventor of the portfolio career, in front of a portrait of his great grandfather, archdeacon Scott. Picture: Elizabeth Handy. Far left, bestselling Handy’s latest book, The Second Curve
Charles Handy, inventor of the portfolio career, in front of a portrait of his great grandfather, archdeacon Scott. Picture: Elizabeth Handy. Far left, bestselling Handy’s latest book, The Second Curve

Charles Handy has been described as many things; author, thinker and business guru are just three common descriptions. All those words fit well but he likes to call himself a social philosopher and that probably better captures the scale of his thinking.

The son of a Church of Ireland archdeacon from Kildare, he is now Britain's first and best-known management guru thanks to books such as the 'Empty Raincoat' and 'The Age of Unreason'.

Over decades, he has predicted the rise of portfolio careers, the advent of the home-worker and the spread of outsourcing.

Handy's life has been devoted to predicting business trends but he is not an uncritical friend to the business world. He has railed at organisations' "inhumanity" and their frequent failure to treat employees well or give them independence to make their own mistakes.

As a young Shell executive operating in the jungles of Borneo, Handy says he was allowed to make his mistakes. Today, with technology and new management techniques, that luxury is less common.

One of Handy's biggest themes is the necessity for organisations, and individuals, to re-invent themselves by stepping off the corporate treadmill and combining work and leisure until they drop.

He is the embodiment of this ideal. Just before his 50th birthday, he gave up the management jobs that had followed Shell and decided to live on his wits. This also involved rearranging his marriage to involve his wife Elizabeth who is a photographer but now also manages his engagements and acts as his gatekeeper.

As we speak in a comfortable suite in Dublin's Merrion Hotel, Elizabeth types companionably in the background on her Mac Air laptop but sometimes interrupts to correct a fact here or there or challenge an anecdote.

In many couples this would be irksome. In the Handys in makes perfect sense; they are business partners as well as partners - and also too civilised to make this awkward.

The trim and lively 82-year-old is full of beans on a trip to Dublin that involves a speech, the promotion of his new book 'The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society' and a photo exhibition in Dublin Airport with stunning pictures by his wife.

The octogenarian has a string of best-selling management books under his belt but his latest book still contains strong and original arguments while revisiting old themes as well. The basic message is that what has worked for much of the recent past in every area of life will not work in future.

'The Second Curve' examines many of Handy's favourite themes; including the notion that people should move to a "second curve" in their careers, however worrying the prospect is, before the first career turns downward.

In the book, Handy extends that idea to companies and other organisations such as governments. "Basically the whole principle is that you should make a change before you think you have to," he says. "If you do it when you see disaster looming, it is too late. Your energy and resources have been depleted. This applies as much to governments and businesses as much as people."

Handy believes the large businesses and banks should be dismantled into component parts and calls for some form of creative destruction.

"We are stuck in Victorian ways of doing things. Instead of trying to reinvent them, governments need to do new things."

Handy is unsurprisingly a fan of the Victorians who had the energy to reinvent the world. "They had grand visions of which we seem to be in short supply," he laments.

He cites the cities of Victorian England as well as the grand businesses of the time. "They had supreme self confidence. We just have big egos."

Still Handy likes companies, like Ryanair or Bloomberg, where founders put their names over the door and there is a sense of mission. Both companies have "a vision and stick to it. We have too much anonymity in institutions now," he complains.

Handy is also a fan of Apple; "If you think in the cold light of dawn what Steve Jobs did. He got the Macintosh back on track and then says; 'We're going into the music business' and then says 'We're going into the phone business'. Phew!"

But, Handy is not such a fan of new chief executive Tim Cook. "He's a tinkerer. The watch!" he says dismissively.

Closer to home, Handy likes the Dyson which belongs to UK inventor James Dyson.

"He's got his name on the company and has put a huge amount into research. I think he might create something big once he decides what," he predicts.

"The Victorians wanted to contribute to society but the modern magnates don't."

The reason Handy gives for the failure of the Victorian ideals is World War I which he says "sapped" Europe's creative energy. "We lost a generation of talent."

Handy is also scathing of other institutions including universities and warns that the age of the big institution is over.

"Institutions are going to be less important. In the past, you moved from institution to institution. They effectively cared for you and trained you and paid you a pension. That was all very nice but it is not going to happen any more. Institutions don't need as many people any more."

Universities are a particular concern. "It's become a rite of passage for the young and a very expensive rite of passage," he says. "People are going far too young for a preparation for life and its not a great preparation."

Like many, Handy is nostalgic for the Oxford education he enjoyed as a young man with its system of one-to-one tutorials and small classes.

A term that Handy has made popular in previous books is the portfolio career - or the notion that people should hold several jobs at the same time to stay interested in what they do and to maintain financial independence from one employer or industry but most importantly to live a full life.

"Whatever you do, if you want to live long, you've got to work."

That can mean everything from unpaid work such as a church warden or looking after a relation. Handy himself looks after Elizabeth who is undergoing a course in chemotherapy.

"I'm coming up to 83 and I woudn't dream of not working; pontificating, singing for my supper," he adds.

"The great thing is that once you work "you are free of ageism. It is when you stop working that you become a rather pathetic figure if you are not careful."

Handy attributes that ability to "sing for his supper" to his background as the son of a clergyman in Kildare in the 1930s and 1940s.

The skills needed by a Church of Ireland clergyman are also those of a performer, he suggests. He also attributes that background to a fear of financial mistakes. "My father had a horror of debt. Being overdrawn at the bank was worse than adultery," he remembers.

And with that, he gets up from his chair as the sun streams through the windows and prepares for the next part of his day; the charity exhibition which will help raise money for Africa while also show casing Elizabeth's talents as a photographer.

Leaving the room, it is impossible not to be impressed and a little daunted by so much energy and wisdom.

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