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Blog : 007 – Licenced to Kill. Is outstanding performance ever an excuse to ‘get away with murder’?


007 – Licenced to Kill. Is outstanding performance ever an excuse to ‘get away with murder’?

By Jo Harley - Director

Released on Friday 26th October I don’t think I am the only one that is very excited to see Skyfall, the next film from the British institution that is James Bond. The 007 franchise has been running for 50 years and public interest is as high as ever. Men want to be him, women want to be with him and judging from the reviews we’ll all come away feeling proud to be British (again).

What I am interested in however, is the relationship between 007 and his manager – M. Mr Bond seems to get away with murder, quite literally, and is a prime example of an employee that gets the result, but does it in his own indomitable way. The ‘win at any cost’ mentality which may have worked in the ‘90s, doesn’t seem to sit well with organisations in the current economic climate, where culture and values are business critical. In recent research by learnpurple and changeboard, 71% of respondents work in organisations that have ‘clearly defined’ culture and values (click here for access to the report), and work very hard to ensure that their employees live these on a day to day basis. Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson agrees with these findings, quoted as saying: ‘Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy.’

So what then happens that when you have a top performer, delivering on results, but not meeting the values set out by the company? Eric Sinoway in a recent HBR blog defined employees as:

·         Stars - the employees we all love — the ones who ‘do the right thing’ (i.e. perform well) the ‘right way’ (i.e. in a manner that supports and builds the desired organisational culture).

·         High potentials - those whose behaviour we value — who do things the right way but whose skills need further maturation or enhancement. With development, time, and support, these people are the future stars.

·         Zombies – people who fail on both counts. Their behaviour doesn't align with the cultural aspirations of the organisation and their performance is mediocre. They are the proverbial dead wood. But their ability to inflict harm is mitigated by their lack of credibility. They don't add much, but the cultural damage they do is limited (and, naturally, these are the employees most of try to "flush out" of organisations).

·         Vampires are the real threat. These employees perform well but in a manner that is at cross-purposes with desired organisational culture. Because their functional performance is strong, they acquire power and influence. Over time, they also acquire followers: the zombies who share their different set of values and aspire to better performance. Soon, there's a small army of vampires and zombies attacking the stars, high potentials and leaders who are doing the right thing.

So should Bond even be working for M and the British Secret Service? On first impressions possibly not; in the opening sequences to most films he would certainly be viewed as a ‘vampire’:

M: You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.

James Bond: The thought had occurred to me.

M: Good. Because I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appeal to that young woman I sent to evaluate you.

James Bond: Point taken.

M: Not quite, 007. If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong. I have no compunction about sending you to your death, but I won't do it on a whim, even with your cavalier attitude towards life.

Bond infuriates M as he doesn’t do things the way she would, yet when we look at the values of MI6 we find that he (although stretching them to the extreme) does in fact usually uphold them, even if it does sometimes feel like he is going it alone (and perhaps we’ll give him a little extra licence for being fictional):

  • Integrity - we act within our legal framework and with the highest ethical and professional standards;
  • Making a difference - we judge ourselves by the value we add in our daily work and the difference we contribute to real world outcomes;
  • Teamwork - we work as a team, across SIS, across Government and with our international partners;
  • Innovation - we use modern techniques, exploiting technology, working at pace, and being creative and intrepid in meeting our goals.

Perhaps it is then the job of a really great performer to understand, live and breathe the values, but then take them to their defined boundaries? This, in an ideal world is a continual discussion between employees and the business to reflect changes in markets, the economy and what is happening in the organisation. It’s also about mutual trust and respect between employees and their leaders. ‘Trust me to interpret these values to the best of my ability to get the job done’. This is what the implicit relationship between Bond and M is all about, and despite conversations like the above, he always gets the result.

The moral of this story is therefore not to label people into Sinoway’s categories too quickly. Although when it really is happening there are obviously serious business issues that can arise from ‘Vampires’ and ‘Zombies’ which should be immediately addressed. The key is to ensure leaders are really getting to grips with their people, the way they work as individuals and how they interpret the values.

Have you asked your people recently how they interpret your values?  

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