Noddy management

Treat your staff to lashings of 1940s-style good sense and you jolly well won't go far wrong, advises Blyton devotee Sally Feldman

September 11, 2008

Some get their inspiration from Henry V, others The Lord of the Rings. I even know a dean who models himself on Roy of the Rovers.

But now that she has been voted the UK's favourite writer, I am ready to confess that my own management style was forged by Enid Blyton. I couldn't have done it without the creator of Noddy and the Famous Five, although most of all my inspiration comes from the boarding-school series.

When I was editor of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, I designated offices according to the wisdom of the prefects of St Clare's. Just as Carlotta the circus girl would need to share a study with quiet but horse-loving Wilhelmina, I knew that sensible Penelope could be relied upon to calm down wild Jane, who booked far too many recherche guests for the show - like all those health workers seeking to spread the message of safe sex to women in Kurdistan using papier mache puppets.

Boarding schools, much like universities, need a steady hand at the top - someone like Miss Grayling of Malory Towers. No one knew what she said to the girls who were called into her study, but all came out wiser and better people.

Which is exactly what I aim for when I have to ask someone to explain curious expenses claims, or missing marks, or why a whole set of first-year students are demanding refunds.

Blyton's schools have an undeniably feminist code of honour. You must play hard as well as work hard, never cheat and never sneak - even when someone has let off a stink bomb. Girls are there to excel and win. Unlike the Famous Five's wimpy Anne, the good little housewife who loves setting up home in the caravan and stores extra provisions in the caves in case anyone is stranded on Treasure Island.

But although she may seem like a bit of a drip, Anne is plucky and decent. She'll shin up a hazardous rope ladder or steal papers from the sinister foreigner if it comes to it. And Anne is the one who thinks ahead and won't let the gang eat all the chocolate in case the baddies lock them up in a dungeon.

Anne is a born manager, organising and predicting the needs of the group. The Famous Five is the ideal Harvard Business team. There's Anne the administrator; Julian the born leader with his determined chin and propensity to issue orders; Dick the playful networker; George the maverick you would place somewhere in Development.

But don't delegate to Timmy the dog: he can't be trusted. When George is allowed to take him with her to boarding school, the rule is that if he misbehaves - stealing Cook's sausages, for example, or chewing Matron's slippers - it is George rather than Timmy who must be punished because she is in charge of him.

Similarly, if my course leaders don't fill in their TRAC returns or fail to submit a module report, it's me who gets the blame.

Animals feature large in Blyton land. Gifted children tame foxes, parrots cling to their shoulders, dogs maim for them. Just as in D.H. Lawrence, the man who kicks the dog will be a villain whose brutishness will be noted in his 360 degree appraisal.

If you want to combine toughness with tenderness, turn to the circus stories. Become a ringmaster like Mr Galliano who can crack the whip, dominate the big top, make clowns cry and trapeze artists fly.

Discover that lions and tigers should not be caged, but run wild like professors, while cuddlier animals love to perform tricks. Appoint willing, cheerful, trainable employees and ride them bareback.

But don't dilute your team with too many "yes" people. You know those academics who are happy to go along with the consensus at every meeting? They are the HE equivalent of Noddy, who, when he couldn't pay his bills in Toytown, would allow his creditors to tap his head instead, to make it nod. Be warned: too many Noddies on your staff and you'll end up under Big Ears' toadstool without your research budget.

Blyton's most useful virtue, though, is self-reliance. Like all good children's writers, she always banishes the grown-ups from her adventure stories. From incompetent coppers to neglectful fathers to absent-minded aunts, no adult is ever let in on the act or ever has a clue about what's going on.

It is the same for deans. Recognise that, whoever is in charge, you can do better. Don't bother senior executives by telling them what you're doing. Get used to the harsh fact that there is no final authority, no arbiter of fair play. There is just a muddled world where you must do your best.

Unless you're lucky enough to have a Miss Grayling to look after you.

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