You can’t win

You can’t win


You can’t win

Leaders can make changes with the best of intentions. But are they perceived that way by those receiving them? Here are some ‘human stories’

The new MD at the major London advertising agency thought he’d make a good start, straight from the leadership text books.

‘Meet the people, press the flesh, show I’m a human being. They’ll all know who I am.’

So on his first day, he stationed himself in the foyer by the revolving door. He was in position early to make sure he saw everyone. As they emerged from the spin in the entrance, he stepped forward, warm smile on face, outstretched hand, introducing himself.

After two hours he retired to his office, sore hand, sore face from all the smiling…but feeling the warm glow of good leadership practice

At lunchtime, he asked his immediate reports, how well the morning gesture had been received. The news was not what he wanted or expected. ‘People are very discontented; they think you were checking on them. Seeing what time they arrived’

‘But…but…’ he said. And then stopped. ‘ You can’t win’.                                                                                  People will find the negative in anything, especially if they feel vulnerable and need to protect themselves


A different MD at a different time with a similar story.                                                                                            I heard my new Division had a tradition of getting cakes for everyone on their birthday. My birthday came fairly soon after the new job, a great opportunity to meet everyone personally. So I went out, bought the cakes, and walked the floors, handing them out. The reaction, through mouthfuls of cream and sponge, was of shock. ‘He’s bought them himself, he went out to the shops, what’s he up to’

Apparently the previous MD kept the tradition by sending his PA to buy and distribute his cakes, and pass on his best wishes.

So this ‘new bloke’ was clearly dropping hints of DIY, job cuts, redundancies, and dissolving status.

You can’t win.


At a later stage, the company introduced Flexitime. A way of recording the extra hours you were working , so that you could accumulate time off for important things like childcare, dentist appointments, or just R and R. The business recognised that people were working overtime and could be rewarded by being flexible with their hours. Of course, there was a form to fill in…but not over-complicated. Won’t people be glad we’ve done this?!

 ‘I’m not filling in their form; it’s a time and motion study; they want to check up on us; puts our job at risk’ ‘but I work out of office, how will those hours be shown; it’s unfair; I’ll be losing out’

You can’t win.


On another occasion, I had been lobbied for months by people frustrated by budget restraints and the need to get approvals before spending; ‘treating us as irresponsible, time wasting’.

‘OK’, I announced, ‘for your budgets this year, there will be 10 percent that you can spend without any reference to me or approval signature. I want to see results for it, but how you spend it is entirely in your hands. You are empowered, given authority and trust’.

In the next weeks, I knew more about that 10 percent than the rest of the budget

‘I know you don’t want to know, and that I’m empowered, but I just thought I’d run through this bit with you’

You can’t win


Salespeople always moaned about the forecast that set the target for their incentives. ‘Who makes up these figures, unrealistic, much too high’

‘OK, this year you salespeople will be involved in assessing the forecast and being part of the team setting the target. We want your input and your engagement and expect that you will be committed to the figures by being involved’

‘Oh no, we don’t want that sort of involvement. Just give us your target. If we beat it, we’ll be heroes; if we miss it, it was too high, your fault not ours’

Win and can’t come to mind.


And to finish back at an advertising agency.

The Creative Team had endlessly complained about our product briefs for press ads : too restrictive, formulaic, prescriptive, shot of brand is too big,  no room for creativity….no-one wanted to work on our account.

One day (without telling us) the Creative Director called them together.

‘OK, this time, you have an open field, no restrictions, no formulaic brief. You start with a blank sheet of paper as big as you like. Express your freedom.’

He watched in amusement, as they returned to their art pads, thought awhile, turned to new blank pages ……..and carefully drew borders round all four sides of the sheet


Leadership must understand the paradoxical reactions that followers have.

Accepting you can’t win, and adapting to the wonderful surprises is a victory.

People are quixotic humans. That’s why AI will play back ‘I can’t win’

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