Recurring management failure

Jul 09 2010 by Robert Heller Print This Article

My first book, The Naked Manager, a child of the late Sixties, was dedicated to all those executives who did the right thing for the wrong reason, and were acclaimed as geniuses and heroes as well as to all those who did the wrong thing for the right, the wrong, or no reason at all - yet still managed to keep their overpaid jobs.

So how far has my jaundiced view of management styles changed? Not that much.

People who have never laid their own fortunes on the entrepreneurial line have long been making themselves multi-millionaires - even at shareholders' expense - with no more trouble than it takes to arrange a bonus deal or stock option scheme.

The trouble is that too many managements have begun to treat the corporation as if it really were their own: another misdeed of the discredited past. But even in the bad old days, there was nothing as discreditable as today's golden parachutes (paid on departure), golden handshakes (paid on arrival) and greenmail (merely paid).

The follies and hot flushes of greed have little to do with the lives and concerns of the younger managers who are going to carry the ball for Western management. The sheer volume of new technology, the shortening time between innovation and imitation, the speed of change in the market and the workplace Ė all these demand that responsibility be pushed down the company into the hands of those who most need to exercise it.

Yet these coming generations of management are the people who have shown most impatience with the dominant traditions of the big corporation.

The naked manager pays lip service to fashionable ideas Ė like the need for higher investment in modern plant and innovation. But what's actually done is very different: American management has been spending many billions in completely sterile operations which have the sole purpose of elevating, not true performance, but untrue earnings per share.

For a main instance, tens of billions went - without any economic justification - on buying back corporations' own stock. That outweighed tenfold the amount, still vastly too large for comfort, lavished on leveraged buy-outs and roughly equalled the gigantic sums disbursed for other mergers and acquisitions.

Both the M&A expenditure and the stock buybacks were many, many times the money which the venture capitalists (supposedly the stars and leaders of the new American economy) invested in start-ups.

Worse still, spending on research and development, the font of innovation, has lagged in the West. Spending on innovation has to be backed up by capital investment. Yet capital spending by manufacturers has remained low, too: it's the service industries which have raised their investment. And that's not good enough.

In an era of unparalleled competitive cut and thrust, those who don't thrust stand a strong chance of being cut to pieces. That's why thrusters and non-thrusters alike need to ponder the myths of management and its realities more than ever before.

It isn't a question of may the best men and women win. They will. The trouble is that the bad men and women may yet again set the pace.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".