If you’ve been watching Downton Abbey, the hit period drama that follows an aristocratic English family at the turn of the 20th century, you may have found yourself yelling at the screen whenever Robert Crawley appears (or maybe that’s just me). Also known as Lord Grantham, he’s the master of the massive estate and responsible for managing an army of butlers, footmen, groundskeepers and maids.
Of course, Robert’s choices are limited by the era’s social, economic and political forces. I say that to be nice. Really, I feel as if he’s speeding the aristocracy’s end singlehandedly, not content to wait until the Second World War like the rest of us. (But again, maybe that's just me.)
While he is not technically a business owner, Robert’s bad instincts and dusty thinking can serve as lessons to us even a century later. Since those who fail to learn from their historic drama’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them, we’ve collected five key management lessons that stand the test of any era.
Lesson No. 1: Make smaller bets. Robert's strategy for Downton depends on big bets paying off bigger. Long before we meet the characters of Downton Abbey, Robert takes a wife, Cora, a wealthy American whose fortune he needs to keep the crumbling estate afloat. He returns to her mother-in-law when he loses the money, seeing her wealth as a type of reserve fund and not appreciating the true risk of his financial decisions. He even talks of friends who got spectacular returns through an investor named Ponzi.
What to remember: "Entrepreneurs have big ideas. In pursuing that they are well advised to undertake small bets," says Brian Brenberg, assistant professor of business and economics at The King's College in New York. Through experimentation, entrepreneurs can better course correct and see how to create value. Says Brenberg, Crawley "is swinging for the fences every time and in the real world, that's not going to work."
Lesson No. 2: Don’t be a know-it-all. Like many entrepreneurs, noblemen like Robert had little formal training. He'd "be more versed in Latin poetry than farming," according to Dina Copelman, associate professor at George Mason University. But Robert still assumes only he knows best. This comes to a head in season two when he makes a disastrous investment in the speculative Grand Trunk Railroad against his broker's protestations, nearly losing all Cora's fortune.
What to remember: The leader of any family business isn't always its most intelligent, making finding and listening to trusted advisors critical. "He'd be a wise manager if he knew where to get advice," says Copelman. Management was beginning to be recognized as a profession in this era and Copelmen mentions the importance of surveyors, lawyers and estate managers to Downton. Adds Stuart Crainer, co-founder of Thinkers50 based in London, "You don't have all the answers. Who you get advice from is really important."
Lesson No. 3: Realize talent comes from unexpected places. In seasons three and four, Lord Grantham refuses the help of both of his sons-in-law, Matthew and Tom, despite their dedication and desire to transform Downton into a profit-making estate. Unlike Robert, his sons-in-law were not raised as aristocrats and Robert can't imagine Tom or Matthew handling his responsibilities. Still, Robert is not an active manager and even his daughter Mary tours the grounds for more than just skeet shooting.
What to remember: "The talented people are probably not the ones you'd expect them to be," says Crainer. He explains that Mary and Tom are some of the estate's best assets but are overlooked because of their status -- just as junior employees can be in modern organizations. Unlike her father, Mary bases her decision making on information, not emotion. Former chauffeur Tom proves to have excellent business acumen. Says Crainer, "There are often people in an organization who are overlooked and they might be where the best decisions come from."
Lesson No. 4: Keep key people happy. After Matthew dies in a horrible car accident in season three, a letter reveals Matthew has left his share of the estate to his wife Mary. Robert bristles at the idea of sharing management duties with his daughter. Before it's confirmed that she might become co-manager, he verbally humiliates Mary at a family dinner, scoffing at her inexperience with crop rotation, livestock and death duties (topics he likely had no familiarity with until he assumed the estate himself).
What to remember: A widow, Mary could remarry, complicating life for Robert and possibly even taking her new wealth elsewhere. Says Crainer, "In a company you run the risk of annoying somebody who you should be developing. Closing avenues off to ideas and inspiration is never a good idea no matter what the business."
Lesson No. 5: Know when to go. Circumstance forces Robert to split ownership and management duties, first with son-in-law Matthew and then with daughter Mary. These transitions don't come easily because he insists on leading by committee and not simply stepping aside.
What to remember: When change happens, shift control completely so one person is ultimately responsible for a decision. With more than one person in charge, there’s likely to be infighting and confusion. “50/50 always means indecision,” says Brenberg. “The decision rights have to be clear.”