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A Fish Rots From The Head Down

Company bosses have a much bigger responsibility, and greater opportunity, than many of them realise, says Sarah Spivey, managing director at Modulift.

There are lots of adages bout fish. A big fish in a small pond. Smells fishy. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Throw a lucky man in the sea, and he will come up with a fish in his mouth. And so on. Another one was referenced in an article I read the other day: A fish rots from the head down. 

I typed it into Google and it appears the source of the proverb is unclear; many claim to have coined the phrase. Where it came from isn't really important; it struck a chord with me because of its relevance to business. When a toxic leader is at the helm of a company, large or small, they can take brands, careers, industries, even families, down with them. If the head goes rotten, be sure the rest will follow. And the stench is foul. There are examples through history that prove the point.

Running a business isn't about making sure people clock in on time and the quarterly numbers add up. A chief executive, managing director or a leader by a different name is responsible for creating a company culture that impacts lives. I don't believe it's possible to have an arrogant, tyrannical, dour, demanding, unreasonable boss that presides over a well-reputed company full of enthusiastic, engaged, dynamic professionals. The boss's influence is too great. 

There are exceptions, of course. It's entirely possible for a bad boss to happen upon a gem of a staffer and there are those strong enough to keep control of their own destiny. However, retaining these folks is nigh on impossible. Thus, the deluded leader does more damage to the company by letting them go or losing them. In some cases, they could have inflicted so much torment on the employee that they walk away not only from the company but also from the industry sector altogether. They run for the hills. 

Come out swinging 

Management of staff is really the crux of the matter; it can make the difference between a poisonous, wrecking-ball of a leader and one that is widely respected and successful. Whether it is the high flyers they need to do everything to retain or the lesser lights that need to be nurtured, understood and developed, a good leader should be able to adapt and show emotional intelligence qualities to work with all of their staff. 

Certain buzz phrases are misunderstood as leadership character strengths when they're really weaknesses. We've all heard people say, 'It's my way or the highway'; 'They couldn't hack it in the fast lane'; 'They weren't cut out for the company culture'; 'I'm not here to be popular'; 'If you liked me, you wouldn't respect me'. These are excuses bad bosses and leaders make, not good ones. When a company is rotting from the head, an excuse culture sets in. The CEO says, 'It can't be my fault because I'm always right'. Imagine what happens when all the line managers beneath them follow suit. 

Remember, it's not weakness to welcome feedback, accept criticism and even admit one is wrong. In a big company with lots of different departments, it's highly likely that those who work in those sub-divisions understand them better than the CEO does. If the toxic boss constantly overrules his team leaders, they'll become demotivated and not bother tabling their great ideas anymore. One day, demotivated and exhausted, they won't step in when a suicide mission is signed off and everything will come crashing down. 

Leadership can be a heady experience and it might be that before the real toxicity sets in, bad practice starts to creep in gradually. Look out for the warning signs. A good leader regularly reflects on the previous weeks and months to ask themselves where they could've done more. It's an exercise that should focus a lot on relationships with staff. Ask simple but direct questions: Could I have helped a person make an even bigger difference? Should I have taken longer to understand what another member of staff was saying? Who hasn't benefitted from one-to-one time with me recently? 

Fear the worst 

It's dangerous to make sweeping generalisations—that's what bad leaders do—but it's fair to say people are more productive when they're happy and feel they're contributing to a cause. Managing by fear or convincing people they're lucky to work for a narcissistic leader doesn't create a culture of happiness. People only go so far if their only motivation is that they have to do it or face repercussions. It's far more powerful if the team goes to work every day motivated and appreciated. 

I've never understood it when I overhear fellow business leaders bragging about tearing strips off members of staff. They snigger as if they've intimidated them into a lifetime of servitude. Actually, the joke is on them. What's so funny about demotivating someone so they go back to their desk and moan to their colleagues, dread Monday mornings, clock watch and start looking for another job? That's about as humorous as rotting fish. 

Professionals read this blog at all stages of their careers and in a variety of industry sectors. It might be that among readers are those who are reporting to a toxic boss. They might be fed up of the reeking odour of rotting fish as it descends down the company's body. If that's the case, get out. It doesn't get better, only worse. Waiting for a change in leadership that's never going to happen might result in leaving it too late, causing personal and professional damage. If one is taking problems home to their family and talking about the boss before asking the kids how their days were, a change is well overdue. Resign tomorrow—no, today! 

If you're the boss, it's not macho when everyone in the room hates you, nor is it big and clever to act like the boss when representing the company in industry. I've seen it at trade shows, for example, my whole career; those who are badly managed stand out a mile off. When a company has started rotting from the top down, it shows. Staff members are aloof and condescending to peers and customers alike. I guess it's the same theory that some bullies were once bullied themselves; it's a vicious circle. Have a look around at your next trade event and see if you can tell. 

While we're on the subject… 

Trend setting 

We've been busy planning our participation in SPE Offshore Europe 2017, which takes place at the Aberdeen Exhibition & Conference Centre in Scotland on 5-8 September. Having walked the aisles at the last event we're making plans to put product in front of offshore professionals. Technical papers and keynote panel sessions will draw a quality audience and it's a delegation we're keen to connect with. Remember to keep an eye on the event hashtag, #OE17, which was trending in the UK at the last Offshore Europe. 

Thank you for reading and use the #belowthehook hashtag to engage with us on social media. 

Sarah Spivey 

Managing Director Modulift

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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