“It has to be a loose fit”

“It has to be a loose fit”

Dr Victoria Herrington

“It has to be a loose fit”

January in Oxford can be bleak for an Australian. While friends lounge about in endless 30 degree C+ sunshine, I am standing on a snow-covered corner in Oxford, suitcase in my hand, and finding it hard to dislodge the Velvet Underground’s earworm Sweet Jane. Like Lou Reed’s protagonist, I’m feeling a little out of place, having just relocated back to the UK – the country of my birth – after 13 years in Australia to complete the EMBA.  A lot has changed in that time and as I stand there, I am no longer sure how I fit.

Perhaps it is just coincidental that the theme of goodness of fit is woven through EMBA S18’s fourth module. In leadership fundamentals we explored organisational design, and the common misfit between the way we structure ourselves and the way we hope our organisations will work. We explored team dynamics, and how tension and conflict – which we might conceptualise as a clumsy interpersonal fit – can be productive for solving problems and creating competitive advantage. And we reflected on our own personal branding, and the alignment between who we are, want to be, and how we project ourselves.

But my preoccupations with fit extend beyond the content of the EMBA. Fitting the EMBA around demanding full-time work, parenting two demanding pre-schoolers, and the demands that come with being one of many in the sandwich generation is no easy thing. I am also impatient to fit as much of the broader Oxford experience into my UK sabbatical, although finding time for this is a challenge. And I am curious about how my EMBA experience will fit into the story arc of my professional life. There is no doubt that this is a challenging course, and amidst the assignments, endless readings, and swathes of financial content that sails undisturbed over my head, there is temptation to wonder whether I am a misfit.

Fit is something we wrestle with in policing all the time too. In a profession that until recently had only one way in – at the bottom – there has been great pressure to “fit in, or f**k off”. The purpose of the police academy might be seen as the decivilianisation of recruits. The aim: to build a strong policing culture and turn everyone blue. This is changing and difference in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and (crucially) opinion is increasingly celebrated. This is partly an understanding about the importance of community representativeness, and partly a recognition that if we are to deal with complex social problems, we need a range of ideas and perspectives on the table. Fitting in too well has its disadvantages, it seems. So instead of a tight fit, we now think about a loose fit. A loose fit that encourages difference of thought as well as difference in demographics. A loose fit that allows sufficient space within the boundaries of operational guidelines for commanders to exercise their discretion when responding to complex crises. And a loose fit that leverages difference as a competitive advantage, and a resource to draw on, not something to find threatening or distracting.

I recognise the lessons in these thoughts for my own development through the EMBA. And with that I finally dislodge the Velvet Underground from my mind, only to have it replaced by the Happy Monday’s Loose Fit. It seems there really is a soundtrack to life after all…

This blog first appeared on the University of Oxford, Saïd Business School website here.