Bob the Bootmaker - a Parable

Bob the bootmaker finally graduated from boot-making school and boy could he make a lovely pair of boots. He went happily home to his family, waving his boot-making certificate.

"And guess what?" He asked his wife. And then, without waiting for her reply, "the principal called me in and told me that he's found me a leadership position at a great boot-making factory training all the other boot-makers."

His wife was overjoyed. "But it gets better still" Bob said. "They have a flat attached to the boot-making factory which we get rent-free as part of the salary package."

Within weeks Bob and his family were packed up, moved to the boot factory and happily settled in the new flat. (Being totally honest, it was a little too close to the factory and Bob's wife secretly wondered if it would mean he was never really off duty).

Bob spent a couple of weeks familiarising himself with the factory floor, the leather tanning rooms and the staff. One thing nagged at him - he didn't see a huge number of boots being made. "But of course" he reasoned "that's because they've been waiting for their boot-making trainer to arrive. We'll soon see that change."

At the end of his honeymoon period Bob decided it was time to swing into action. He called a meeting of all the staff and laid out how he intended to begin the new boot-making training. Only to be met with confused, slightly awkward silence. He pressed on through to the end of the meeting with the enthusiasm of a new leader. "They clearly don't quite get me yet. That's understandable, I've only just arrived. It will all change as they learn to trust me", he reasoned.

But the following day the three next most senior people in the factory asked for a meeting. "How did you feel the meeting went yesterday?" they asked, seemingly non-committally.

"Pretty well" I thought. "I know I'm new and need to get to know people, but we will have everyone trained and making great boots in no time, just you see. This is going to be a boot factory to be proud of!"

The three shuffled and looked at each other nervously. Finally one took the lead. "You see, the thing is Bob, we think there may have been some miscommunication. None of the rest of us are actually boot-makers".

That made Bob sit up. "What do you mean, you aren't boot-makers?"

"Just that. We aren't boot-makers. We don't make boots. We aren't qualified to make boots."

"Ah, I see. Lack of confidence. But that's why I'm here - to train everyone. Just let me at it and everyone will become a confident boot-maker."

"We're really sorry Bob, but you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. We weren't told that you were being sent here to train us as boot-makers. We were told that you were coming to make all the boots. That's why you're here." And then, with an encouraging smile, "we are your backroom people. We'll find the cash for you to make all the boots. We clean the factory and are sure the machinery works. Oh, and one more thing, the company global headquarters has given the three of us responsibility for doing your performance reviews."

"But don't you see that 100 trained boot-makers are going to make many more boots than just one person doing it for them?" Bob gasped.

"That's just not the way it works" came the reply. "You're the boot-maker. You are the one with the boot-making qualification after all. There it is framed on your office wall."

Looking back later Bob realised he should have put his foot down, but he didn't. Reasoning that he would change the organisational culture eventually he just got on with making great boots. He did it alone but at least some boots were being made. So wonderful were the boots that the factory staff started to buy them for themselves and recommended them to their friends. And so the orders piled in. If you looked from outside business seemed very good. Black boots, brown boots, high healed, mock crocodile skin, Bob could make them all. He was a great all-rounder.

As demand grew Bob worked longer and longer hours. His people constantly applauded and praised his dedication. He felt guilty that he was spending more and more days making boots late into the evening often not seeing his family from one day to the next. Finally he decided it was time to take some positive action so he went to see the college principal.

"Principal, things are going very well. Our output has grown and everyone wants our boots. But I can't keep up with demand. Please will you send me a colleague to help."

The principal was sympathetic. "We've all noted your great work, Bob. Well done. Your factory is a flagship." For a moment Bob glowed with satisfaction. It was short lived. The principal continued "however I'm afraid I have bad news. While your factory is doing well many others in the group are not. In fact we're in deep financial difficulty. Not only can I not send you a colleague but I have no choice but to ask you to take a pay cut. I'm so sorry. It's no indication of the high regard in which you are held, it's just facing reality."

"But that money was what we needed for a deposit on a place of our own" Bob said.

"I know, in know," the principal murmured, clearly distressed. "But that's the way it is. It's that or nothing."

Bob left disturbed and distressed. His next port of call was his management trio. They were distressed for him about the pay cut and the lack of a colleague and deeply sympathetic. "That's hefty burden. How will you manage to keep things ticking along?" they asked. "We all really love what you are doing. Great job, Bob!" Bob simply didn't know how to answer.

There was a silence.

"Actually we have some good news" the team announced. We love this factory and your leadership so much that we've all decided to buy stock in it. It's clearly a flagship place. And we've encouraged everyone else to do so as well. So as well as being your team and your encouragers we are your employers as well. Isn't that great news? Such a close relationship!"

Bob took a risk: "I've decided to take young Bill under my wing. I think he could make a great assistant. I can train him and he will help take some of the burden off me."

"We don't know about that, Bob," they replied. "We love young Bill, don't get us wrong, but he doesn't make boots like you do. You're the one employed to make the boots. You have the qualification and you make such good boots."

For the first time in his boot-making career - Bob disobeyed. He took on Bill anyway. But it didn't last. The criticism was low-level but constant and wearing "Bill's boots aren't black enough. Bill doesn't make boots that last as long as yours. Bill isn't trained. Bill isn't the people person you are. Many people are saying that Bill might be better elsewhere."

Bill got the message and decided he really wasn't called to boot-making.

Bob laboured away, he and his family getting more and more discouraged. Occasionally he was bouyed up by a compliment about the boots but more often than not it was criticism that came his way for not making more, not making to order, not fulfilling the demands of each and every one of his new bosses. "I want green ones, make green ones. I want ankle boots, this should be a factory for brown ankle boots. No, thigh length. No let's stop making boots altogether and diversify into a range of other leather products."

"And Bob, we see you so little now. You used to be so personable. You used to share yourself with us. Your wife used to be so committed to the boot-making but now we aren't sure her heart is really in it. Don't you want transparent authentic relationships? You do like us, don't you?"

Eventually Bob could take it no more and packed it in. Not knowing where he and his family would go or what they would do he nevertheless decided that any other option was better than being trapped any longer in the boot factory. He was good at what he did but the situation had become unsustainable, inescapable and un-negotiable. There was clear blue water between what he thought the job would be and the expectations of everyone else. And those expectations turned out to be unchangeable, at least by him.

One day, a little while later, Ben, a newly graduated boot-making trainer, was summoned to the principal's office. "Well done on your graduation. I have excellent news for you. A post has recently become vacant in one of our factories for an aspiring young boot-making trainer. You can train all the other boot makers. It's a great opportunity. The factory has made some of our best boots under its previous management. It even comes with its own flat, rent free, as part of the salary package."

Benny went home with eyes shining to tell his family the good news.

(Never, ever let what happened to Bob (and to Bill, and probably to Ben) happen to any boot-making trainers you know or who come to serve in a factory near you).