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.
Imagine if the attorney-general of Switzerland asked the New York Police Department to drive up Park Avenue and arrest several senior officials of Major League Baseball. The cops would probably do it, if the extradition charges were drawn up correctly, but one or two New Yorkers might demand to know what business it was of the Swiss to interfere in a traditional American pastime.
“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.)
Coming to San Francisco for the first time in a few years brings home how much it has been transformed. Whatever you call what is happening — a boom, a bubble or a flood of money into what was known as new technology before the “new” became redundant — has augmented the city’s reality.
When a group of wealthy investors compete with each other to buy an asset, surely they have a clear idea of its financial value? Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s, who on Monday night auctioned Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” (Version O) to an anonymous buyer for $179.4m, thinks they do.
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.
Scottish nationalism figured prominently in the campaign for Thursday’s UK general election. But the first true act of independence could be a move by HSBC, a bank that has never been happy in London, back to Hong Kong. The Scots expatriate clan that founded and still heads HSBC is losing patience — a virtue it never possessed in abundance — with being taxed, ringfenced and unappreciated.
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.
Berkshire Hathaway shareholders came out in record numbers to mark the golden anniversary of Warren Buffett’s control of the company but the celebratory atmosphere did not stop some tough questions being put. Mr Buffett was prompted to full-throated defence of partner 3G’s management practices. in a reminder that, for his folksy charm and liberal values, Mr Buffett remains a capitalist through and through..
This has not been a salutary week for European corporate governance. At Volkswagen in Germany and at Industrivärden in Sweden, a system intended to encourage stability and long-term growth has instead created self-indulgence.
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.
Deutsche Bank is the last heavyweight contender. While the other European investment banks — Barclays, UBS and Credit Suisse among them — retreat to retail and private banking amid investor discontent and a regulatory squeeze, it is doing the opposite. It wants to become more like Goldman Sachs, not less.
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.
Like previous student-led boycotts of tobacco companies and banks with operations in South Africa, the global fossil fuel divestment campaign is rumbling into action. With high profile backing from the Guardian newspaper and a student blockade of the university administration at Harvard this week, its supporters want to cripple the world’s oil and gas companies by striking where it hurts — at their finances.
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.
By stepping into the furore over Indiana’s religious freedom law, in defence of gay rights, Tim Cook is boldly taking Apple where companies have been wary about going before. But he is not the only US business leader advocating for a deeply-held personal belief — so have Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com on the same issue, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks on racial discrimination and violence.
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.