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Disagreements at the top

This week the news reported the departure from their companies of two executives – both long-standing.

Greg Smith’s departure from Goldman Sachs, after 12 years, has been reported globally. This is not surprising – as everybody loves to hate bankers, and investment banks. The claim that Goldman Sachs viewed clients as “muppets” is a delicious image, and so it’s not surprising to see a journalistic feeding frenzy following Smith’s resignation letter, published in the New York Times on 14 March 2012.

The real question however is whether Smith’s departure matters. I think that it depends on what clients do, and I suspect that the answer will be very little or perhaps nothing. Obviously Goldman Sachs’s aim is to make money. In a testosterone fueled environment, bravado, where clients are called muppets and phrases such as “hunt elephants” (referring to getting customers to spend more with you) shouldn’t be a surprise. If anything, the discussion will raise again (for a few more weeks) the issue of banker remuneration. It may even have a salutary effect by making firms such as Goldman Sachs emphasise that ethical behaviour in business must be the norm, and that the 1980s dogma that “greed is good” is not an asset post the 2008/9 financial crisis. As Goldman Sachs has said in response:

In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.

In fact, as the Economist suggests, the real muppet may be Smith himself, for not realising that clients aren’t stupid, and that if they weren’t getting value from the firm they’d move elsewhere. I suspect that the real reason for Smith’s resignation was sour grapes. Perhaps somebody got a bigger bonus. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely he’ll find similar work with other banks – as no company will want to employ somebody who is quite so vocal in their condemnation of their former employer.

The more interesting departure however, from a strategic perspective, was that of Richard Brasher, the UK boss of the supermarket Tesco. Brasher was the most high profile departure since new CEO, Philip Clarke, replaced Sir Terry Leahy. Leahy retired from Tesco at the end of February 2011 and since then a number of other senior executives have left or are leaving the firm. These include

  • David Potts, head of the Asian operations who will retire, aged 55, from Tesco in June;
  • Andy Higginson, head of Tesco bank and former group finance and strategy director – also aged 55;
  • David Reid, Tesco’s chairman – who was replaced by Sir Richard Broadbent in November 2011;
  • Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco’s director of corporate and legal affairs, who will retire from Tesco in January 2013. Lucy Neville-Rolfe’s role is being split into two – neither of which will be a board post;
  • Richard Jones, Head of Clothing who has moved to the private Irish supermarket, Dunnes, taking the same role;
  • Laura Wade-Gery, CEO of Tesco.com and Tesco Direct, and head of non-Food, who has moved to a board-level position with Marks & Spencer.
The news stories reporting Brasher’s departure mentioned Tesco’s poor winter sales implying that this was the reason for the change. Philip Clarke will take over Brasher’s role, combining the job of UK CEO with that group Chief Executive. Some reports suggested that deep disagreements existed between the two over strategy for the UK – which issued its first profit warning for 20 years. Tesco has not denied this. Although originally Clarke said that there was no rift between the two, he changed his tune after the announcement of Brasher’s departure, saying

You can’t have two captains in a team

However it’s not just Brasher that seems to be finding a problem. The number of senior executives – especially long-standing executives – leaving Tesco suggests profound disagreements at the top.

David Reid was expected to retire and Tesco had been looking to appoint a new chairman to replace him. Potts, Higginson and Neville-Rolfe are also reported to be retiring. Their departures, so close together, suggests an unhappiness with Clarke’s management of Tesco as generally companies try and prevent large-scale boardroom changes to ensure continuity.

When a board is split over strategy and cannot agree, continuity is not possible. Management is all about consensus and agreement on the path that should be followed.  If this is not possible  there has to be change, with one side or the other leaving. The alternative is chaos, resulting in the company losing share and profitability as the focus moves to internal dispute, rather than market growth. This appears to be the situation at Tesco – forcing Philip Clarke to assert his authority. It was either his head or Brasher’s. As Clarke said: there can only be one captain.

 

Note: After writing the above article I came across a great Harvard Business Review blog looking in depth at Goldman Sachs culture and how it may have changed over the years since Greg Smith started (and why). Worth reading for any Goldman Sachs watchers:

http://blogs.hbr.org/fox/2012/03/greg-smiths-resignation-op-ed.html

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