Boring Workplace, Boring Worker

By Handy, Charles | Management Today, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Boring Workplace, Boring Worker


Handy, Charles, Management Today


One of the great advantages of art in Italy is that most of the paintings are still in the very places for which they were commissioned. They are frescoes, painted into the plaster as it dries, and frescoes are hard, if not completely impossible, to move, particularly if they are large. So when you walk into the old Council Chamber of Siena's town hall, the Palazzo Publico, you will see, on the end wall, the great image of the Madonna and her court of angels which the counsellors of the 14th century would have looked at as they conferred. The fact that it was painted by Simone Martini, their very own artist, would have been a cause of some justifiable pride, but the real point was that the Madonna also happened to be the patron of their city and, as she is painted, her gaze forever looked down on them and their doings. Her gaze is benign, but at the same time demanding.

Good and bad government

Go next door to the room of The Nine, where what one might call the executive committee of the city met, and you confront the elaborate frescoes done for them by Ambrogio Lorenzetti 100 years later. On the left Lorenzetti depicted all the signs of bad government: thievery, skulduggery, wantonness and widespread despair. On the right was good government: a well-ordered city surrounded by peaceful, productive countryside. I have to admit that the good government people don't seem to be having much fun. It looks pretty much like all work and no play, but that, maybe, is what all governments would like to see - no trouble and lots of useful enterprise. The point, however, is that you cannot sit in that room and be unaware of these powerful works of art and of their message. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then these amazing frescoes, some 600 years old, give out a far stronger message than any corporate mission statement could ever wish to convey. Mission statements can all too easily be shoved in a drawer and forgotten, but if you sit in their midst, there's no forgetting or ignoring Lorenzetti's frescoes. The charm of Siena today is largely a tribute to the men who sat in those rooms all those centuries ago.

I wondered, as I looked at those frescoes the other day, what equivalents there are nowadays in our boardrooms and executive meeting rooms, what visual reminders of their task and their mission. I cast my mind back over boardrooms I have visited. Some were hung with heavy portraits of sober-looking predecessors. Are the current board members supposed to emulate them? If so, it is small wonder that many of those boardrooms no longer have companies to accommodate. Other boardrooms, perhaps appropriately, are hung with modern abstract works, works which each board member must interpret for themselves, just as they also make their own interpretations of the company's proclaimed reasons for existence. Then there are those where the company results are charted, reminders more of the past than the future, I often feel. …

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