It's not every CEO who tells an interviewer, "call my mother." But Robbie Stamp's mother, Gillian Stamp, is no ordinary mother. She came to her career as a management consultant from a background in social work; she counts as a mentor and collaborator Elliott Jacques, a leading business theorist and a cutting-edge thinker on human interaction within organizations. She is one of the few women consultants to work with top British companies. Her portfolio includes ICI, the British chemical giant, and the newly consecrated bishops of the High Church of England. She is a professor at the London-based Brunel Institute of Organisation and Social Studies. And for Robbie Stamp, she is a lifeline to deeply felt ideas about work. At least once a day, the two email each other to discuss business.
Among other things, Professor Stamp has passed on to her son her "tripod" model of management: "tasking, tending, trusting." "The tripod deals with the work that makes things work," she explains. Of its three legs, "tending" is perhaps the most important.
"Tending is incredibly hard work," she says, "and it's the kind of work that nobody notices when you are doing it. We were having China tea the other day, and Robbie remembered a China tea with milk in it, offered him by a colleague. He thought it was ghastly, but he drank it and gave the colleague a very appreciative look. If he'd said 'No, thanks,' that person might then think twice before coming to Robbie with a new idea or a problem. Over the centuries, slaves and women and great leaders - great leaders, not ordinary leaders - have practiced this kind of work. Great leaders take the trouble to be in touch with ordinary things.
"Like Norman Schwarzkopf. During the Gulf War, he got very involved in designing a special boot that would be more effective and more comfortable for troops fighting in the desert. That sensitive awareness of tiny things is what makes a great leader.
"It's very hard work, but it's the most effective way to please customers. By signaling to your people that each tiny thing makes a difference to you, you help them recognize the things that will also make a difference to the customer.
"Every day, you have to dust off these skills. Sometimes it's not enough to dust - sometimes you must polish. Robbie does this intuitively. One of the things that he and I work on together is the intuitive part of management. If you are taught something as technique, you lose it. You need to learn it as a recipe.
"Few people understand both the forefront of technology and the best ways of working with people. The managing of this all-important 'and' means developing in people a respect for both the technical and the social aspects of work.
"An example of the social aspect: making sure that someone comes in and does massage. Or making space for a coffee room even when you're squeezed for space. The other day, Robbie was talking about wanting to build a cloister at TDV, a quiet place with shadows as well as light. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about how, while vacationing in Italy, she longed for the gray skies of England. If an environment is all light or all dark, it's likely to induce certain ways of thinking; it's not as good as one that mixes light and shadow. Robbie wants to be able to switch from talking about investment opportunities to talking about a beautiful solution to a story problem - and to make that movement with grace.
"At TDV, the raison d'etre is to serve the imagination. To do that, you need to free, shape, or sculpt the imaginations of the people working with you, so they can offer the end-users the most imaginative and generative kinds of products."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.