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Disagreements at the top

March 16, 2012 1 comment

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

9% of 11-year old boys can’t read! So what?

December 17, 2010 1 comment

You can tell that news is sparse on the ground – unlike the snow. The newspapers have already done a blanket coverage on the snow and how the UK again skidded to a halt, so they can’t do that one again. Instead, the press is trumpeting on about how terrible it is that 9% of boys can’t read properly when they leave primary school.

Apparently BBC Radio 4 asked the Department of Education for the number of children who failed to reach level 2 reading age, the standard expected for seven-year olds, and found out that around 18000 boys aged 11 had a reading age of seven or less. This was in contrast to other statistics that have shown a steady rise in standards – with children achieving the expected minimum level 4 having gone up from 49% of children to 81% in the last 15 years.

Seemingly, even worse, in some areas – for example Nottingham – 15% of boys failed to get past the level 2 reading level.

The problem with all this isn’t the statistic but the lack of context. When reporting information (whether for competitive intelligence, general business or marketing research, or whatever) it is essential to include the context. A figure on its own is meaningless. In fact, those figures for Nottingham could be brilliant – if five years ago, 30% of boys had failed to get past the level 2 reading level. It would mean that the numbers of children failing had halved. Conversely if the number had gone up from 5% then this would be a massive indictment against the teaching profession who were failing to motivate and educate their pupils.

In fact, the original story from the BBC does give some context.

In 1995, the proportion of 11-year-olds getting Level 2 or below in English – the standard expected of a seven-year-old – was 7%. In 2010, it had fallen only to 5%.

The figures show the problem is worse for boys. Overall in England, 9% of them – about 18,000 – achieved a maximum of level 2 in reading.

This shows that in fact, performance has improved overall, with underachievers falling from 7% in 1995 to 5% of all children now. However without a longer-term trend it is impossible to put much value into the statistics – especially as other research reported by the BBC looking at seven year olds showed that children with special educational needs, and from deprived homes (meaning that they were entitled to free school meals), were the worst performers. A third (33.6%) of seven years olds on free school meals failed to reach the requisite level 2 in writing and 29.3% failed to reach this level for reading. In contrast, the children who did not receive free school meals did much better – only 12.1% failed to reach the required level for reading, and 15.5% for writing.

I’m actually surprised that some mathematically-challenged journalist hasn’t picked up on these figures and claimed that providing free school meals results in children under-performing at school. In reality, all the figures show is that such children have barriers to learning that schools have to try to overcome. This may be because the children are under-stimulated at home (and so start at a lower level than their peers), come from homes where English is not spoken by the parents or are of lower intelligence overall. (In fact, intelligence tends to fall on a normal curve. If 10% of children outperform – and have a reading age 3 years ahead of the norm, you can expect that a further 10% will have a reading age 3 years less than the norm).

The lesson from such statistics and reporting is simple: before publishing statistics in the press or in a business report provide a context.

This context can be temporal – looking at how figures change over time. In the case of the school statistics, they appear to have improved over the years for both the low and average achievers – a testament to the teaching profession. Context can also be seen when comparisons are made – as in the comparison between children on free school meals versus those not entitled to this benefit.

Strategic decisions based on figures should only be made when context is included. Without it, the figures mean nothing, and should be left to melt away, like snow.

The Art of the Possible

October 17, 2010 2 comments

I try and make sure that my blog posts stand on their own – and if read in a year’s time will still be relevant. Although I sometimes focus on news issues, I always try and look beyond to lessons that can be learned.

The news this week throughout the world has focused on the rescue of the Chilean miners. News stories have focused on how the 33 miners kept up their spirits, their faith in God, their humility and so on. The rescuers were praised for their commitment to free the miners – and that they never gave up.

There are numerous lessons to be drawn from this news story – for management of businesses and humanity in general. However I’m not the first to spot the connections. Jeff Kaplan’s ThinkIt blog post Corporate Lessons from the Chilean Miner Rescue is worth reading. Jeff highlights how the rescue showed commitment to save the miners, determination to rescue them, and for the miners to stay alive, cooperation to achieve the objectives, and several more aspects that made the rescue possible.

There was one area that Jeff didn’t cover, and that is that believing in yourself can turn something that seems impossible into something possible. Benjamin Zander, the  conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra co-wrote a great motivational book – “The Art of Possibility“. I think that this is the true miracle of the Chilean miners and the best lesson to be learned. Rather than give up the miners as lost, efforts were made to locate them. When they were found, even more efforts were made to get them all out alive. What seemed impossible was proved not to be – difficult, but achievable.

However bad things are, giving up is not the solution. Rather, try, try and try again. Failure should never be an option. Instead focus on succeeding – and if things don’t go right first time, try again, learning the lessons from the first time so that mistakes aren’t repeated.

A celebration of diversity

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Motivational Poster - rowingPeople crave unity – and dream of a world without conflict. Business emphasises the idea that all staff should be singing from the same songsheet. Motivational posters emphasise such teamwork through relevant pictures – typically showing sporting images such as rowers – all pulling together in unison.

Having rowed, while at school, I can appreciate this image – a boat where the rowers fail to row as one will quickly flounder. However I question whether such unity is good for business or the world.

The bible story of the tower of Babel gives a different perspective on this that is worth considering (and thanks to Rabbi Andrew Shaw for the idea). The story is related in Chapter 11 of Genesis.

Verse 1: Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.

On first reading this fails to make sense. If they were one language, then surely they were “one speech”. However this is not what the text is saying – it is suggesting that not only did they all speak the same language, but they all thought the same and said the same. There was no disagreement. A few verses later, this sense of common purpose is manifested as an action plan:

Verse 4: And they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.

The people are behaving as one – they all agree and show a desire to congregate together, rather than spreading across the earth and showing independence of thought and action.

This view seems utopian. No racism; no hatred; no conflict; total harmony and love of fellow man, to the extent that they don’t want to separate.

Yet what happens next, in this context, is incredible.

Verses 6-8: And the LORD said,  Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do. Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city.

Rather than supporting human endeavour, God seems to be punishing it – and actually destroying this unity, so that mankind is forced to spread out across the world. The question is why? What is so wrong with thinking the same, acting the same and believing the same? The text even suggests that mankind would have been able to do whatever it wanted to do, had God not acted.

I believe that in fact there is a lesson for business here. Imagine two businesses: the first expects conformity, has top-down management that gives instructions and punishes a failure to obey. Such a business will quickly oust anybody who fails to follow company mores – leading to a strong culture, and way of working. In contrast, the second business encourages diversity and embraces change. There may also be a strong culture for this second business but it will be based on flexibility and recognition that each staff member is an individual and it will respect their differing opinions.

The first business would succeed when their isn’t much competition and where the business environment is stable and unchanging. In fact such a business could become a powerhouse in such circumstances, as its single purpose and single mind would allow it to do whatever it wanted.

Unfortunately in the 21st century, this doesn’t happen. All business faces competition and change is a fact of life. A business that was unwilling to respect differing opinions would fall into an almost idolatrous believe in routine, and be unable to change course easily. It would be impossible to suggest that an agreed business plan had weaknesses – as challenging the established order would be anathema. In contrast, the second business type would flourish as it would take ideas from wherever or whoever they came from, and use them as relevant. Flexibility would be key, and such a business would be able to move out to new markets and geographies.

That is the lesson of the story of the Tower of Babel: diversity is key as expecting the world to remain constant is not the real world. Change is inevitable and fearing change is poor management. Instead businesses that respect different ideas and opinions are the ones that can adapt and grow – rather than those for which routine becomes their business idol.

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