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I’ve been given a 22-year-old to manage who has a first-class degree from Cambridge — and is a first-class pain in the butt. I’ve asked him to work on some slides for a presentation, which he has done carelessly. When I pointed out all the fonts and colours were not our house style he had the cheek to say that he did it that way because it looked better. Pep talks don’t work; he just shrugs and looks condescending. How can I make him buckle down and get on with it?

Manager, male 51


Lucy Kellaway’s answer

People with first-class degrees from Cambridge are not usually well suited to the corporate world. In his short life this young Turk has been very successful at one thing. Now he is being asked to do something else for which not only does his degree not help, it un-helps.

Getting a first means slogging away amassing a lot of knowledge and then doing something original with it. Big companies cannot really deal with originality; for all their talk of creativity, they only work if everyone does everything more or less the same way. That’s why they make a big deal of their fonts all being the same. Equally, getting a first involves spending a lot of time in a library on your own. There is no need to cultivate anyone, or even to be minimally polite. This is the worst possible preparation for corporate life, which demands that everyone goes through the pretence of liking all the people they are forced to work with.

There’s another thing too. Possession of a first-class degree means that your ageing managers who are not similarly endowed are likely to resent you. That is what has happened in this case. You see this young man as a spoilt, lazy pain in the butt — and in return he doubtless sees you as a pedantic and stupid old man who personifies everything he has already learnt to hate in his job. I’m expecting him to write to me complaining about his intolerable situation any day now.

He needs a pep talk but so do you. Yours goes like this. You have been given this man to manage, so manage him. It is your job to find out what his skills are (apart from writing essays) and see if you can give him something more interesting to do.

Equally you have to explain to him how the system works. As he is starting out he may have to do some tasks that he thinks are beneath him. Tell him about the importance of office politics and help him understand how to play the game better (for example, by doing what he’s told, looking less snooty, and so on). Explain to him why fonts matter. Explain why it matters that your presentation is correct and why it is his job to correct it. When you have explained it all, if he is as recalcitrant as ever, you can stop managing him. He won’t stay long and so he isn’t worth bothering with.

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