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A boss’s foibles can be a delight

Last week, Sally Mapstone was exposed for breaking a big unwritten rule on how a modern boss should behave.

The principal of Scotland’s University of St Andrews has made it clear her team should never write an email that starts with “I hope this finds you well”, or ends with “I hope this helps”. Nor should they come to work wearing corduroy, the Sunday Times reported.

This sort of micromanagement is wildly out of fashion. Today’s executives are rarely rewarded for being brazenly judgmental. Yet the story reminded me why I still have a secret fondness for bosses with such foibles.

I should say I have never had a job at a company such as Mars, which expects managers to eat its dog food before it leaves the factory to make sure it is up to snuff.

Nor have I worked for anyone like J Edgar Hoover. The former FBI boss was, among other things, so obsessed with his agents’ weight he ordered surprise weigh-ins and personally supervised pudgy offsiders as they stepped on to the scales.

It was probably worse at Royal Bank of Scotland under the lender’s former boss Fred Goodwin. During his fearsome reign, catering staff were once reportedly told off for bringing “rogue” pink wafer biscuits with the executives’ afternoon tea.

Still, some managerial fixations have benefits, especially when it comes to communicating clearly. When Thérèse Coffey was briefly the UK health secretary last year, she caused a minor uproar with an email advising staff to avoid the use of jargon, double negatives and Oxford commas. She might have gone too far on the matter of the comma, but her war on guff was admirable.

Likewise, Dominic Raab, the UK’s deputy prime minister, asks civil servants to keep submissions they send him to just three or four sides of A4 paper, unless there’s a good reason to make them longer.

This news has emerged amid claims that Raab bullies staff, which he denies. Bullying is obviously intolerable but there is nothing wrong with encouraging staff to write crisply without needless blather.

There is something else about a boss’s quirks. If harmless, they can humanise a manager and have a pleasingly unifying effect on staff.

I once worked for an editor who caused much office intrigue by failing to conceal his dislike of beards, a tendency he turned out to share with Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers.

Friends who know Tyler Brûlé, founder of the Monocle media group, have been equally fascinated by his loathing of green pens and jackets hung on the back of chairs.

The same goes for former Tatler magazine editor, Kate Reardon, whose devotion to tidy desks was so intense that staff were encouraged to clear away everything from in-trays to pencil holders at the end of each day. “I have an aversion to offices which look like a teenager’s bedroom,” Reardon told me last week.

Still, the impact of Mapstone’s dictums at St Andrews takes some beating.

Earlier this month, a professor at the university who has questioned Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine smelled a rat when he got an email from a colleague that began with Mapstone’s detested greeting.

The mail proved to be a fake and if the professor had opened an attachment it contained, he could have been hacked by people thought to have links to Russian intelligence services.

When I spoke to Mapstone the other day, she said she had never issued a formal edict on either emails or corduroy to her fellow academics, whom she knew to be “hugely counter-suggestible as a constituency”.

But she had made her views about irksomely redundant email pleasantries plain in conversations, as well as a 2018 graduation speech.

And she had revealed she had “a violent aversion to corduroy” in an after-dinner speech she made after joining St Andrews from Oxford university in 2016. The stuff was “unhygienic”, “generally ill-fitting” and “should be discouraged as a sartorial form”, she told me. “It connotes a kind of shabby genteel amateurism which is a throwback to a previous generation.”

I cannot pretend to have deep feelings about corduroy, beards or double negatives. But the world would be a far duller place if all the bosses who harbour such passions were never able to air them.

pilita.clark@ft.com

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