Santa is well known for miraculously delivering presents on Christmas Eve and, even more remarkably, for his talents when handling frisky reindeer, not to mention, his prowess for slipping in and out of chimneys.  But, in the annual excitement, it is often overlooked that for most of the year Santa is a reluctant manager.  You see, he has hundreds of helpers who spend months processing presents and packing parcels. This is not the most scintillating work and, believe it or not, Santa often has to deal with bolshie workers; clock-watchers who just want their shift to be over as soon as possible. Inevitably, this means that parcels are often shoddily packed, with lopsided ribbons, and stored in ungainly heaps awaiting dispatch on 24th December.

Unfortunately, poor Santa, with his unfailingly cheerful disposition, is ill equipped to manage people’s performance.  He prefers to think well of people and to give them the benefit of the doubt. He also tends to say ‘ho ho’ (and sometimes even ho ho ho) when something more considered is called for. When faced with a tricky situation, Santa simply makes light of it by ho hoing. For example, when one of his helpers was upset because her husband was ill in hospital, Santa, instead of showing a bit of empathy, tried to cheer her up with some misplaced ho hos.  The poor woman took umbrage and reported Santa to her union.

Anyway, because of these failings, earlier this year, before things got too busy, Santa’s boss suggested that it might be a good idea if Santa went on a management course. Perhaps you are astonished to hear that Santa has a boss?  But yes, just like most managers, Santa has one of those but his (or her!) identity is a closely guarded secret. Suffice to say that Santa’s boss realised that Santa needed some help with his people management skills.

Santa, like most managers, had never been on a management course before.  He didn’t know what to expect and, like most bosses, his manager had failed to brief him adequately or to agree any learning objectives. So, Santa arrived on his course, wide eyed and innocent, hoping that a few ho ho’s would get him through the week. 

The first thing that happened was that all the participants had to complete the Honey & Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire.  Of course, everyone else had heard of this questionnaire, and some had even done it before, but to Santa it was a totally new experience. He responded to all the questionnaire items as instructed and was astonished to discover that he was a raving activist. In fact, the other three learning styles hardly registered. The trainer running the course advanced the view that Santa’s strong activist tendencies might go some way to explaining why he ho ho’d when something more sober would be more appropriate. This struck Santa as a profound insight because no one had ever given him feedback about his ho hoing behaviour before.

Then, later in the course, Santa was invited to complete some of other self-assessment questionnaires designed to explore his behaviour as a manager.  He opted to do three; Leading Teams, Performance Management and Developing People. Never having done anything like this before, it is no exaggeration to say that Santa was gobsmacked by the results (he even forgot to say ho ho). He identified some actions to take back to the distribution centre at the North Pole that would help him create the conditions where people with different skills and abilities collaborate to produce high quality outcomes.  It had never dawned on him before that there were specific things he should do, over and above ho hoing, to get the best out of people.

So, Santa, armed with robust action plans, returned to work.

The first thing he did was to brief his boss on all he had learnt.  The second thing he did was to seek out the poor woman with a husband in hospital and apologise for his clumsy behaviour.  The third thing he did was to call his helpers together and announce that in future he was only going to restrict himself to seasonal ho hoing; confined to the months of November and December only.  The fourth thing he did was to invite all his helpers to complete the Learning Styles Questionnaire so that he could identify their learning style preferences and use this information to help each of them produce tailor-made development plans.

Within a year Santa had transformed the distribution centre. His helpers stopped watching the clock and were keen to do well.  On the rare occasions when mistakes occurred, everyone used them as learning opportunities and improved the processes that had allowed the mistake to happen.  Parcels were packed beautifully, with neat ribbons, and batched correctly awaiting delivery on 24th December.

But, best of all, Santa stopped thinking that ho hoing was the answer to everything.  Instead, he became a good listener and an honest communicator.  And the catalyst, as he’d be the first to acknowledge, was working through some of Peter Honey’s self-assessment questionnaires.

Ho ho!

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