The causes and consequences of the long-running inflation of profits by Toshiba reflect some uniquely Japanese cultural norms. So, inevitably, did the 2011 scandal at Olympus , where successive leaders covered up accounting manipulation.
Imagine a business with a base of middle-class customers in the richest nations, a fervent new following in the world’s fastest-growing Asian economies, loyal corporate backers, and a new global television showcase, championed by personable young stars. Are you in?
Habitual lateness, mild abuse of the corporate credit card, a little grousing by outgoing employees about low pay or overwork: the day to day dysfunctions of many large businesses. But could these be warning signals of a coming collapse in corporate culture or an imminent scandal? If so, how should companies detect and act on them?
Within seconds of the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on June 28, people who had been watching the live stream of the launch took to social media with a familiar line.
When Deutsche Bank named John Cryan as its new chief executive three weeks ago, the commentary had an insidious subtext. He has “an enormous brain”, one friend told the FT. “Very thoughtful,” said a former colleague. Ominously for Mr Cryan, these comments echoed those made about Vikram Pandit when he unexpectedly stepped down as Citigroup’s CEO in 2012. He was “too cerebral”, said critics of the Citi boss.
My first — and probably still my favourite — factory visit was to London Rubber Company’s Durex condom plant in Chingford, London. Mind you, the sight of a latex sheath being test-inflated to a metre or more in length does tend to stick in the memory.
Frederick Winslow Taylor is the ghost in the room at debates about new ways of monitoring staff. As the pioneer of “scientific management”, he was the man with a clipboard and stopwatch timing factory workers at the turn of the last century.
I blame Sebastian Junger. The success of The Perfect Storm, the journalist’s 1997 book about a doomed fishing boat gave embattled corporate titans the perfect metaphor for what went wrong on their watch.
“The managers have much pleasure in stating that the immense numbers who have travelled under their arrangements have been conducted in perfect safety — indeed in the history of the Midland Lines, no accident, attended with personal injury, has ever happened to an Excursion Train. In conducting the extraordinary traffic of this Great Occasion, the first object is to ensure safety, and that object has hitherto been most happily achieved.” (Thomas Cook poster for an 1851 trip to the Great Exhibition.)
Sometimes a species reaches the end of its natural existence. As its numbers dwindle, disappearance becomes inevitable and the last survivors of the doomed herd become objects of curiosity and pity. This is happening to chief executives who are also chairmen — but with none of the pity.
Sky’s victory over Skype in the European court is an odd affair, provoking some predictable reactions. For a start, there is a certain irony in the first European tech start-up to build itself into a global brand being called out by a European court for it.
But when wealthy owners of brand names made out of generic and widely used words start to throw their weight around, scepticism is usually in order. What next? A freeze on Skyy Vodka? A brake on the SkyTrains used in cities from Bangkok to Vancouver? How about a trade embargo against the Isle of Skye?
Consider this, though. While confusion between Sky, the satellite television provider owned by Rupert Murdoch, and Skype, the Microsoft-owned video calling service, seems unlikely based on current habits, those habits can change – and fast.
“I have won a lot of promotions and been at Wembley and won the play-offs, [but] I think, individually, this was the biggest result.” If you follow sport at all, you get used to hyperbole. But this recent comment by Steve Evans, who manages the Rotherham United football team, stood out.
When it comes to management challenges, fish fingers and circuses are at opposite extremes: one product is the acme of industrialised food processing, the other the ultimate expression of human creativity and energy. Somehow, private equity has found room for both: last week, Permira agreed to sell Iglo, which makes Birds Eye fish fingers in Europe, after nine years running the frozen foods company, while another buyout group, TPG Capital, led a deal to gain control of Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil.
Entrepreneurs tend to see regulation as the enemy of innovation and progress.
But while it is true that watchdogs can struggle to keep pace with fast-changing markets and to comprehend technology companies’ novel ways of working, it is hardly surprising they sometimes resort to random barking.
If you have read a new business book, done executive training or attended a leadership summit recently, you have probably seen a slide, diagram or animation of the human brain.
Steve Jobs’ acolytes say Becoming Steve Jobs paints a more fitting picture of the Apple founder than Walter Isaacson’s “authorised” 2011 life. Most neutral readers who plough through another 435 pages of Jobsiana, will neither know nor care. But the battle of the bios will have been worth it if it sounds the death-knell for the worst of all management memes: the leadership lesson listicle.
Self-manager: Zappos' Tony Hsieh © Zappos
When I first wrote last year about Zappos’ efforts to introduce a self-managing system called Holacracy, I said that for most companies to adopt such an approach would take “time, a leap of faith and an act of unusual self-effacement by their leaders”.
An extraordinary memo from Tony Hsieh, chief executive of the Amazon-owned online shoe retailer, has underlined just how difficult it is. In the memo, published by Quartz this week, Mr Hsieh says that in the face of potential resistance, the company is now going to take a “rip the bandaid” approach to accelerate its progress towards self-management.
Quartz reports that some of the things I predicted would be stumbling blocks — confusion about the absence of titles, defection of staff — have already affected the transition. Mr Hsieh is not giving up; indeed he’s offering severance packages to staff who are not comfortable with the new approach. The fact that a chief executive has to order a change to a system with no chief executive is only one of the apparent contradictions here.
“To become a bigger company, we need to try something new”, Yamaha Motor’s chief executive Hiroyuki Yanagi told the FT recently. The novelty in question is a two-seater “city car”, cleaner and more fuel-efficient than existing vehicles, that the motorcycle manufacturer could launch in 2019.
Whenever chief executives babble about “ecosystems” — as they often do — I picture one of those school biology diagrams of a pond: bacteria at the bottom, algae floating on top, and maybe a stickleback or two darting about below the surface.
It’s reasonably well-known that WPP stands for Wire & Plastic Products, the wire basket manufacturer that Sir Martin Sorrell chose 30 years ago as a vehicle for his plan to build a global advertising and marketing business. Wire & Plastic Products, operating from an industrial estate in Hythe, Kent, is still part of the group.
Wire & Plastic Products’ pre-history is a little more obscure. In researching my recent FT Magazine profile of WPP’s chief executive, I dug out the FT advertisement for the flotation of the original company in April 1971. Read more