Gary Grieve, who was my predecessor in a job at BP, and who had many different managerial roles in the Company, used to have a slide that he showed to a new group he was leading. It looked something like this:
Objectives for 2010
1. Make money
2. Have fun (optional)
What is the place of fun in the leadership of a corporation? Is it fun when the one-third of participants in a company conference who are dedicated golfers go off to play, leaving the rest of us to lounge around the hotel? Is a night at the pub putting away several pints of beer fun? Is fun optional, and if so for whom?
I have been to some 'fun' events at corporate meetings that were definitely not fun. A carefully planned karaoke evening that was positively painful, for example. Or some boat trips that seemed to go on forever with very little purpose or fun.
Still, it is possible to have fun mixed with business. Not long ago, I was with a company board in Shanghai, when, following a long day of meetings, intense discussions and a dinner with staff, someone suggested the entire board go for foot massages at 1 am, and we all just loved it.
Fun can be planned, but it works when the team feels like doing it. I was with a group of BP executives in a hotel somewhere in Southeast Asia for a couple of days, just on the edge of a lake, and finally someone said 'this room and this air conditioning is getting to me, we better take a little time off and have some fun'. So a boat was arranged to cruise around the lake, and we ate, drank, swam, and had our meetings for a day on the boat. And the meeting became a memorable one both because of what we accomplished and how we accomplished it.
The role of fun is, at any time, a test of the sensitivity of the leader and of the team members as to what is appropriate, and what will lift spirits. It can be a day at the races, or some outdoor games (I have good memories of such things as blindfold Land Rover driving or human sheep dog trials). But I have those good memories, in contrast to my bad ones of the karaoke evening, because someone read the state of the team just right on those days.
And one other point. There is a time to cancel fun activities. We were holding a meeting when word came of an accident involving a company ship on which there were fatalities. That was not a night to take the whole team out on the town, as was planned. Better a quiet dinner, a nightcap, and to bed.
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?