Robert Burns and Organisational Culture

I was delivering the Immortal Memory at a Burns Lunch yesterday.  Being a Burns fan, and a speaker, it’s something I do a lot at this time of year.  My enjoyment of haggis is undiminished despite the frequency with which it is set before me.  As you go to speak at different places, the haggis you are served can be very different in flavour, texture and mode of preparation.  It can be extremely appetizing – or otherwise.  

As a speaker, your subject matter may have to differ as much as the haggis!  It depends upon lots of things: whether the event is mixed or single sex; the nature of the group that has organised it; the make up of the audience; even what part of the country you are speaking in.  Yesterday, my audience was the Glasgow Business Club.  The lunch was held at the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park.  The surroundings were beautiful and so too was the meal.

We were well set up.  In thinking about my theme for the Immortal Memory, I had been very conscious of my business focused audience.  I have been associated with the Club for about 25 years, as both schools that I headed up (Govan High and Newlands Junior College) were members.  Govan High even got to the final of the ‘Business of the Year’ competition one year!  I have piped in the haggis many, many times and this was my 4th time speaking there.  In days gone by, Govan High band and singers entertained the guests as they assembled.  I knew the gig!

I came up with the idea of having the theme, “Robert Burns – a man of principles and beliefs” and that this was one reason why I admired him.  I would source some principles and beliefs from his poems and use quotations to substantiate my claims.  It wasn’t difficult.  They were in my head already.  A quick browse through the collected poems and the real preparation and writing began.

The principles and beliefs that I chose were equality, truth and honesty, hard work, support from and for his fellow beings and basic humanity.  The poems I quoted from were The Twa Dogs, The Tree of Liberty, A Man’s a Man for a’ that, Epitaph for Willie Muir of Tarbolton Mill, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn, Lament for Gavin Hamilton and Man was made to Mourn.  They are mostly well-known poems.  Having itemized the principles and beliefs I then posed the rhetorical question to the audience, “Can you be proud of Robert Burns because of these principles and beliefs that he had?”  Having said that I certainly could, the next question I posed was, “If the world was run according to these principles would it be a far better place?”  Everyone was nodding.

Building on that success, I went to the real point or message of the speech.  I asked that last question again but substituted “your workplace/business” for “the world”.  I then ran through each of the principles in turn and applied them to the culture of organisations.  

For the equality principle, it was another rhetorical question, namely, “Do we really need to start on how a failure to observe the basic principles of equality has led to real challenges for some employers?”  In highlighting truth and honesty, I told of how I used to always stress to prospective/new employees that we had to operate on the basis of being truthful and honest.  It made things easier in long run and brought integrity to the organisation. I then asked, “How much better would the world of business be if everyone operated from this base line?  Within and across businesses ….”  In considering hard work, we thought about how commitment, energy and application are all important for success.  Support for fellow beings took us into pastoral and developmental areas.  Do we notice when someone is struggling a bit, do we seek to help them, do we empathize?  Do we remember that we work to live and not the opposite?  If you take the terrible modern-day term human resource, where does our emphasis lie? On the human or the resource?  Do we give colleagues a leg up – or in the scramble would we rather seek to keep them down?   Basic humanity could be seen to go beyond application in your own business into the world of corporate social responsibility.

I concluded by urging the members of the audience, that should they nothing else away from the day, to take these basic principles of Robert Burns – equality, truth and honesty, hard work, support for fellow beings and basic humanity – with them into their workplace;  to have them in mind for how they operated as people; to incorporate them into their mission statements, vison and values and company aims.  

It is my belief that with such an approach, company performance improves.  I endeavoured in all my years as a boss to operate in this way and it worked for me and my colleagues in the places I led.

I received extremely positive feedback from the Club and members of the audience.  My Burns message had been striking a chord.  A couple of lengthy conversations followed after the meeting was over.

I heard Sir Tom Farmer once say, “Nowadays we spend too much time valuing targets and not enough time targeting values.”  He is correct!

Iain White 29.01.2020

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