Interview with Mitch Vandell, Author of “Bargepole Management”

When business author Mitch Vandell contacted me, I was intrigued by the title of his new management book “Bargepole Management“. I know what a barge is, I know what a bargepole is by extension, but what does it all have to do with management and career strategies? To find out more, we had a conversation about it…

​Why did you write “Bargepole Management” and what’s different about it?

author mitch vandellWhat sets this book apart from other management is that instead of promoting ideal behaviors for a perfect world it looks at the realities of human and organizational imperfections and how to exploit these.

A bargepoler doesn’t aspire to lead by example, have transparency or a fair meritocracy. They are more interested in building barriers to communication, having unclear accountability and shifting goals. With my career in media, marketing and PR, these are fields that have particular focus, and specialize in creating and managing image and perception which are the main tools of Bargepole Management. It is a practical framework for wielding control over how valuable your contribution to an organization is perceived to be. This is particularly for how valuable your contribution is seen to be by the key individuals that decide your position, pay and power in an organization.

My motivation is not to promote manipulative behaviors by teaching people how to get unfair advantages and taking advantage of others. Instead, my intention is more to help better understand what the strategies and behaviors are and why they are so well rewarded. If it is an unavoidable reality, how do we adapt or change these realities to benefit both the performance of organizations, and as importantly, try to create the best possible environments that offer employees job satisfaction.

Okay, let’s back up. What’s a barge, and what’s a bargepoler?

The ‘Bargepole’ symbolizes the distancing of oneself from being measured on your input or contribution towards a direct outcome. If the value of your work is quantifiable you are limited as to how much you can earn. In this way bargepoling also entails a leveraging of your work by motivating other people to take on accountability and forfeiting credit and reward to you. The main objective is to be seen as successful regardless of what the overall outcome of a project is.

Most of us have seen examples of this where a person is in a top position despite it being clear that they are not contributing with any meaningful input and are barely aware of what work is being done. Answering how this question was a large part of my inspiration to write this book.

How would you summarize your theory ‘Bargepole Management’?

Bargepoling is the art of getting priced at a premium in the work place, as the book’s strapline suggests. Branding is well understood in relation to products. For instance, with a luxury brand you accept paying a brand premium for the perceived and emotional value that is projected onto it. It is the same when charging a premium as an employee, how your pay and reward is set must be based foremost on subjective value.

Personal Branding is not new but how Bargepole Management differs from conventional ideas in this field is that it is not about getting your name out there and building a brand identity in the marketplace. It is rather more about selectively marketing yourself as the kind of luxury brand that only those that can afford it have even heard about of and don’t question the value of. The perfect bargepoler can keep it unclear what their job responsibilities actually are, yet, have no one question that what they do must be important.

Bargepole Management Theory merges behavioural psychology with traditional economic theory to view employees in an organization as separate agents acting within a marketplace. This combined perspective reveals how individuals can act with a more raw self-interest.

Is Bargepole Management a catchall term for incompetent managers?

Bargepole management is commonly misunderstood, often deliberately I think, as a strategy for getting away with being incompetent, lacking leadership skills and not doing any work. Sure, it can be misused this way but bargepoling is really about managing perceptions of how valuable you are seen to be to an organization.

book bargepole management mitch vandellHow can you spot a bargepole manager?

That’s a tricky question because if you are spotted as a bargepoler you are not doing right! I discuss four main types of Bargepolers in the book. Probably the most important and overarching strategies is having a persona that can make paint very optimistic projections despite having little substance to back it up, all without being called out on this. Think of any hyped up leader, businessman or entrepreneur. Their recipe tends to be a mix of relying on general trends to confirm what people want to believe,over-simplifying complex scenarios in an emotional and elaborate way which in turn allows them to avoid complexities that less charismatic and authoritative individuals can’t get away with.

What makes a good and competent ‘Bargepoler’?

Everyone is an expert on bad bargepolers but it is more interesting to try and spot good bargepolers and learn from them. Their main trait is their ethos to first do no harmand focus only on activities where their contribution is maximised and have a positive impact. This is in contrast to those who over-estimate their capabilities and fail to realize their shortcomings to thereby sabotage with their input. Skilled bargepolers are actors, how capable they are perceived to be as individuals has no real grounding. The most popular American president in recent history was also the best actor. President Ronald Reagan projected an illusion of transparency and authenticity that allowed him to credibly deflect accountability for failures and take credit for everything good that happened overall.

When did you spot your first bargepole manager?

Having worked in many expat environments from London, South America, Asia to Africa and the Middle East I started seeing universal patterns in the behaviour of individuals that are able to avoid accountability and still be seen as valuable despite the overall failures of their projects.

Studying this deeper I could see how the different pieces come together for what I coined to be Bargepole Management. But the most interesting thing I picked up on is how this management approach in often the most effective form of leadership in the interests of both the organization and the individual. This is particularly the case in multi-cultural and transient work environments with rapid changes in the market. Under such circumstances, delegating to the fullest, avoiding clear positions to wait and see and trying to maintain the status quo by expressing confidence and simply following general trends is not only the best approach. This type of leadership requires more discipline, courage and skill than most people give credit and few actually have what it takes.

How did the idea developing a book and a short course for being a bargepoler?

The success factors that explain how certain individuals overshoot their potential and their competition without demonstrating any real skills, performance or accomplishments is always discussed. People usually try to explain it along the lines of having had the luck to have been at the right place at the right time and getting favors from the right people. Sure, that is undeniably a big part. But the closer you study these individuals the more you realise that their ability to stay in a bargepole position and keep landing in new ones is no mere fluke! This led me to want to develop a model that is both actionable and explains how to cultivate an image of being critical while making decisions, input and contribution impossible to identify, trace or measure. The book dives into the tools used for achieving this and the tools involve social psychology and the influence on organizational structure and communication.

Are bargepole managers a bad thing, or just a fact of business life?

It is neither good nor bad. It is unavoidable for any careerist to avoid engaging in bargepoling to some extent. But this is also a reason why the subject is so sensitive to many, as very few of us want to be put on the spot as exactly what skill and value we are contributing with, or if how we are rewarded is based entirely on merit or the value we deliver.

The general theme of this book follows a current trend in academia in tackling the reality of empty work and leadership. What is crucial to recognize is when bargepole behaviors become excessive. You then often hear talk about there being a lack of leadership. But what it is really about is a surplus of counter-productive leadership. While this may be plain for anyone to see, there are rarely any benefits to point this out or suggest improvements. A vicious circle occurs where employees are mostly focusing on protecting each other’s backs and jostling for position with the consequence of an organization’s competitiveness being sacrificed. Bargepole Management is taught at universities around the world including Chalmers, a leading institute in Europe, and it is from this angle that it is looked at.

What’s the best antidote to a bargepole manager and tips for working with them?

First, identify the mutual interests you have with a bargepoler and how in a working relationship you can maintain a comfortable distance and not interfere in each other’s territories. This is usually what a bargepoler wants and can be the foundation of a very productive work relationship. Secondly, and as importantly, avoid getting outmanoeuvred or played without realising it is being done. Understand the tactics bargepolers use, this is probably the most valuable function this book serves for both those starting out in their career as well as senior managers and company owners. Having a discussion about why bargepole behaviours are so common and widely recognized, yet are rarely addressed openly, is worth having. To directly confront these organizational realities is the best antidote to understand its influence on organizations and distinguish when it is an asset or a burden.

Bio: Mitch Vandell

Formerly with the Financial Times in London, Vandell has reported from locations around the world including Baghdad, Kabul and Tripoli. He is the author of Bargepole Management that focuses on the psychology of business and management that has been adopted into the curriculum at universities around the world and called ‘a rare gem’ by Forbes.

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