June 29, 2012 7:24 pm

Why a change is better than a rest

It would be useful to send executives into the small business wilderness during the summer

Summer in the northern hemisphere has officially started, with millions of Norwegians, Swedes and Finns setting their out-of-office replies to expire on July 30, tidying their desks, packing up their families and starting their much-cherished breaks. Elsewhere, summer holidays won’t be quite so perfectly planned, as the UK is a free-for-all when it comes to getting away, Switzerland doesn’t go for the August shutdown enjoyed by France and Italy, and many North Americans will have to make do with a few stolen long weekends rather than weeks of sun and play. However, rather than everyone running off to weekend houses, secluded coves and mountain retreats, I think families should be encouraged, even forced, to take working holidays.

Recently, I’ve met many senior executives selected by their companies to spend a couple of weeks at business schools such as Stanford and Harvard. While I’m sure many good business contacts will be made and everyone will learn how to be more efficient with costs, I’m not convinced how much will be learnt about relating to customers, managing volatile personalities, meltdowns in supply chains and real-world PR crises. Rather than shelling out hundreds of millions to centres of higher business education for senior managers to listen to lectures by gurus and participate in scenarios, it would be far more useful to send executives into the small business wilderness and let them run their own enterprises for a month or two.

In less entrepreneurial societies, companies might have to help out with the basics by acquiring a few small enterprises for their management to tend. In more developed economies, money that would have been spent on all those summer courses could be channelled into a fund that prospective board members could use to acquire businesses, turn them round and set them on a course for stability, if not measured growth.

To keep partners and offspring happy, this would be a family affair, with everyone pitching in to help during the working holiday period.

To ensure domestic stability, businesses would be located in attractive environments to ensure time off could be enjoyed to the max, and there would be a comfortable housing set-up nearby so hours that wouldn’t be lost commuting.

I argued last week that students on summer breaks need to take real jobs rather than getting mum and dad to pester friends for cushy internships. With this scheme, out-of-touch managers could bring their children into a “family firm”, rather than sending them to camp or summer courses.

As many people fantasise about running their own shop, café or hotel by the time they’ve hit their mid-forties (having done too many years in a corporate environment), such an initiative would do much to encourage staff retention, allowing disillusioned 47-year-olds to indulge their start-up desires once a year while keeping their generous corporate package for the other 50 weeks in the calendar. Companies would benefit from managers returning refreshed and connected with consumers, while managers would recognise how challenging it is running your own gig without the wires and safety nets that underpin most corporate set-ups.

The downside might be that some managers could find they like the freedom of running their own enterprise and choose to resign – but this too could also spell opportunity. Not only could a company choose to invest in a start-up venture, it’s also better for the broader economy to encourage a culture of start-ups and shopkeepers naturally rather than burdening the education system with too many programmes that offer too much theory and little practical experience.

Where to start? While holidaying in southern Italy last week I spotted at least a dozen businesses that could easily have been improved with a bit of love from more experienced managers and perhaps staff with international experience.

Despite the gloom of Italians, hotel bookings were as strong as ever (according to managers and owners I spoke to), shops and restaurants were full of visitors from Texas and Melbourne and it was tricky to get hold of a decent boat to charter, as Indians, Brazilians and Swiss had made block bookings for the entire summer season.

From little retail enterprises on Capri, to inn-keeping opportunities in and around Naples, to agricultural ventures in the countryside, I spent much of my time in the sun thinking about the ventures waiting to be acquired or kick-started. With property prices dropping, yachts in the hands of receivers and businesses up for sale, Italy is the perfect place for companies to start looking for little villages in the sun where they can deploy their brightest managers, invest shrewdly to maintain staff loyalty and develop a better management culture in the process.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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