Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Little Prince in the Business Context

I am not going senile or in any other way melodramatic. There is a reason why I want to talk about one of the greatest children's books of all times (the greatest is Alice in Wonderland, of course) and not merely point out the merits of this literary work, but also link its ideas to the context or present-day organizations and every-day lives.

The Little Prince used to be a book I truly loved as a kid, but I guess I did not understand it fully then. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine brought me a collector's edition as a present and I duly read it once again. As I was reading, I saw the new possible interpretations, the deeper meaning of the metaphors, characters and words. Well, this is not Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky: the imagery and symbolism of The Little Prince are easier to grasp, and maybe this is what makes the book attractive to so many people.

I am going to give you five quotes from The Little Prince and some thoughts of mine how those phrases can be interpreted in an organizational context:
    The Little Prince
  1. "Beware of baobabs": as you remember, el Principito (how they call him in Spanish) took great care of pulling out the weeds on his planet. If you don't tackle them when they are young, innocent-looking and fragile, they will soon grow into mighty baobabs and will destroy your little planet with their roots. Deviant behaviors in a company may as well crystallize into mentality sets and get entrenched in the company culture. Make sure you recognize them from the good "plants" and pull those out as early as possible.
  2. "Grown-ups like numbers": yes, the bottom-line is important, but it is not the only thing that matters. Look beyond numbers and you will see the intangible elements of the business: sometimes it is better to give up some part of the profits to gain something else instead.
  3. "The most important things are invisible to the eyes": have you even seen "culture"? Or maybe "motivation"? How do you convince the Board of Directors that investments into the employee satisfaction, morale and embeddedness are actually critical to the company's success? Going further, how do you measure them? The invisibility and intangibility of the matters that the HR professionals have to deal with make this job both difficult and exciting at the same time.
  4. "You are responsible forever for those you have tamed": well, "forever" would be a strong word when we talk about an organizational life, but once you employ someone, start managing a person or a team, engage in a coaching/mentorship relation, you are accountable for their well-being. Abandoning or treating your employees with disrespect is like throwing your pet puppy into the street because you don't like the way it smells.
  5. "People are never happy where they are": this was the signal man's phrase, who was managing the express trains carrying many people there and back, who were always on the go, not sure where they wanted to be. I am no clairvoyant, but even before you so an employee satisfaction survey at any given organization, I can tell you that the three lowest scores will be salary, training and communication. People have a natural tendency to complain about their lives even if there is nothing wrong with them. Human nature is complicated.
Finally, I would like to leave you with another quote from The Little Prince. I hope you have warm recollections of the book and will read it once again:

"Eyes are blind. You have to seek with the heart"

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