Institutionalised mediocracy

Growth suffocated by management; ambition killed by idiots – heard this story before? This is not where our future lies.



I missed a week. I am sorry for anyone who connects with the stuff that I write and those who don’t haven’t missed anything anyway. The excuse? Too busy!


I remember the story of Lee Ioccoa who was told by some of his executives that they were too busy to take a holiday. His response was that if they could not organise themselves to take a holiday, they certainly weren’t the right people to organise Chrysler. But that is by the way.


Each week I have an idea for a blog and when the time comes, an experience interrupts the idea and I write about the experience.


This week is a beauty for me but it may not be for you. I am into organisational behaviour as the framework of success and growth.


So, this week two stories came across my working day that staggered me. The first was from a university. I was quietly enjoying a dinner party conversation when suddenly I became interested in this story.


A lecturer at a major university had been holding down the job under annual contracts for some years as the director of a department of the faculty. She had national recognition in her field, a PhD and had won the award for best teacher in the entire faculty for that year.


Her job was advertised so that it could be tenured (academic parlance for job security) and she applied.


A 60 year old with no PhD but with every intention of undertaking the program (which, incidentally was managed by this lecturer at the dinner table) was appointed because he was a mate of the head of the faculty.


I heard the conversation: “That’s it for me. I have a contract for 12 months, I will concentrate on the PhD students and will do what is necessary, but I am damned if I will put in the effort and the hours that I have been putting in during the past few years.”


Will she win the best teacher in the faculty next year? No way! She has opted out of the system. Will the faculty continue to enjoy the growth that has been built on her reputation? No way!


The seeds of growth have been destroyed in preoccupation with mateship and hell to the customer. Anyone heard this story before? I bet you have.


At the same time, I was talking with a guy who works in an organisational role with oil companies on oil rigs.


He came across the story of the guy running the rig who wanted to know why the workers on the rig were not pulling their weight.


So the guy observed the situation for a while and noted that the guy running the rig was constantly critical of the guy in charge of drilling, who passed the criticism down the line to the workers who, in turn, decided that enough was enough and that they would do whatever was necessary to get paid and no more. Anyone heard this story before? I bet you have.


Growth suffocated by management; ambition killed by idiots (and unfortunately, they are in abundance in our universities upon whom we depend for the next generation of innovation, for goodness sake!) and opportunities wasted in the pursuit of ego and the comfort of working with people who will agree with the boss.


We are a stalled nation. We are carried away with the ability to make money by digging iron out of the ground and shipping it to China. That is not our future.


Our future and the guarantee to growth is by breeding the risk taker, the person who is prepared to innovate; the person who is prepared to go outside the square and the person who is prepared to sit back and listen – and respond to the message when things are not working.


If we can’t get it right in our universities (and so far we haven’t) then what hope do we have of being a competitive and innovate country? This trickles down to every SME. Innovation and energy is there in abundance in the people in the organisation. Are you going for meritocracy or mediocrity, as they are in our universities?


In our universities we have become obsessed with the “contractual” employee who, we assume, will turn up next year and enter into another contract. When it comes to “tenure”, which is rare, we will make sure our mates get the job.


Australia is in a pickle when the institution upon which we rely to turn out independent and innovate thinkers are run by people who pussy foot around in their appointments and expect “contracted workers” to give their heart and soul to the development of the students.


What tends to occur is the institution of mediocrity in universities with the risk that this will contaminate our work ethic.


If Australia is to reach its potential (which is enormous) then we have to start reforming our institutions of higher education to ensure that people who know how to achieve growth run the business of universities, and people who are gifted academically are able to pass on their expertise to their students in the knowledge that their own future is secure.


Don’t spend any more money on universities until we put people into them who can turn the culture into meritocracy rather than mediocrity. And by the way, make sure that women are treated at least equally.


I just had to get this off my chest after hearing the same story from so many people at some many dinner parties over so many years. Our university system stinks and that is one of the great impediments to growth in this country.


Next week, if you can stay with me, I will get back to the story I was going to write last week but was too busy.



To read more Louis Coutts blogs, click here .




Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.