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Weirdos and misfits

Philip Fisher asks whether we can learn anything from Number 10's recent recruitment failure.

20th Feb 2020
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Boris Johnson
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The all-powerful Dominic Cummings apparently based the Number 10’s recruitment policy on a desire to utilise the talents of “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Many accountants will recognise the dilemma faced by Mr Johnson and his cohorts at what has become an embarrassing time.

This is the annual opportunity to remind readers of when the team behind Monty Python unkindly portrayed our esteemed profession and its members as boring – unfavourably comparing us to lion tamers. While that is an exaggeration and a generalisation, there is an element of truth in the depiction. It has to be said that the general perception of those who spend their lives confirming numbers created by others, and checking that people put the right information in the right boxes on their tax returns, may not be as positive as we would like.

There is no question that the kind of skill sets which persuade men and women to enter the profession, and then move slowly but surely into its higher echelons, tend to be based around solidity and reliability rather than a desire to excite and astonish by taking wild risks. To express things differently, in his or her spare time, the average accountant is more likely to play bridge or tend the garden rather than climb Everest or jump out of an aeroplane without a parachute.

The problem with this skill set, is that while it makes us very good at the core disciplines required to be successful accountants, we frequently find it difficult to carry out some of the tasks that need something 'extra'. The obvious example is selling. Selling can often benefit from a wild imagination, massive self-confidence and the ability to tell a story which may not be as accurate as most would wish.

Similarly, those who are in the business of coming up with exotic tax-saving schemes, ideally, need wild and wacky imaginations that think way, way outside the box. This means that, although the majority of people working in the profession tend to fit into a relatively predictable profile, sometimes it is necessary to bring in some of Mr Cummings’s “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

When it works, it is a brilliant marriage that benefits both sides. We get fresh viewpoints and opportunities to move our businesses in directions that we would never have imagined. They get the chance to shine and, quite probably, make far more money than they would in the fields to which they might more obviously be suited.

However, if my experience is anything to go by, every silver lining has its big, black cloud. For every eccentric that has been a success in the firms where I have worked, there have been far more who didn’t fit in. Typically, these types of people over-sold a product they did not understand or rubbed everyone else in the office up the wrong way.

The solution should be obvious. It is necessary to have a mix of personality types, but when you are trying to bring on board someone a little out of the ordinary, take even more care than usual. Otherwise, you could end up in the same embarrassing position as Number 10.

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