Monthly Archives: May 2009

Stefan Stern

Stefan Stern

Are there board benefits to breaking male hegemony?

Boards composed entirely of white males can damage their businesses by indulging in narrow “groupthink”, according to Helen Alexander, who is expected to become the first female president of the CBI, the UK employers’ organisation. Is this true? And if so, how do companies overcome it?

Continue reading: Judgment call: are there board benefits to breaking male hegemony?

Stefan Stern

Something else to worry about. When business is bad, your best people get twitchy. They struggle. They start looking round for something better to do. “Clever, creative people want to go to work and have fun,” says Gareth Jones, a fellow of the centre for management development at London Business School (LBS). “They don’t like gloomy workplaces.”

We have heard enough for one lifetime about the “war for talent”. But this doesn’t mean that leaders can ignore who is on their team. Last week I went to a seminar hosted by the Corporate Research Forum which, thankfully, injected new life into that increasingly tired debate over talent, knowledge workers and the rest of it. It is time to reframe this debate. What we should be thinking about, you see, are clever people.

Clever is a slippery word. It is never a good idea to be thought “too clever by half”. Many people are told at some stage in their lives that “you are not as clever as you think you are”.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Stefan Stern

Stefan Stern

Is management ultimately just an elaborate waste of time? This might sound like a career-limiting question for a management writer to ask. But I am forced to think the unthinkable after reading a new book, called Management Rewired, by the US consultant Charles Jacobs (which I have reviewed here).

The author makes some startling assertions. “The managers who produce the best results are the ones who do the least managing,” he says. “The biggest challenge is for managers to stop doing most of what they’re doing now.”

Mr Jacobs bases his approach on the discoveries made by neuroscientists in recent years. He argues that, now we know so much more about how the brain works, we need to move on from the standard management practices which, he says, are ill-suited to human beings, given the way we react to the world around us.

As animals, our emotional responses are more powerful than our rational ones, he says. Logic evolved later. Cool, rational feedback is bound to upset people. Appraisals are basically destructive.

“When it comes to organising large numbers of people, we’ll get better results if, rather than trying to thwart their natural inclinations, we just accept how people behave and make the most of it,” Mr Jacobs writes. Currently, management is “more suited to forms of life lacking the ability to think.”

Blimey. My rational, logical side wants to disagree (we need order, not chaos!). But perhaps that’s just because my inner chimpanzee is feeling threatened. I’ll have a banana, and think about it…

Stefan Stern

The weekly punch-up that takes place at Westminster every Wednesday, otherwise known as prime minister’s questions (PMQs), is not the place you would normally look for enlightenment. But last week it provided an instructive exchange on two different approaches to leadership.

The context for this exchange was the ongoing row over the dubious expenses claims made by some members of the UK parliament. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, set out his views in clear terms. “Is it not time to stop the talking and the endless committees, and start showing some real leadership to deliver some real change?”, he asked.

Prime minister Gordon Brown explained how he planned to proceed. “On all these issues, I am trying to build a political consensus on change … Leadership is about the whole of the political system responding to the changes that need to be made.”

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Stefan Stern

Stefan Stern

Decisive. But even-handed. Confident. But not arrogant. A front runner. But also a team player. A leader. But a manager, too.

We expect a lot from people who hold positions of leadership. There is no shortage of books on the subject, and no sign that the supply will ever dry up.

Leaders are often portrayed as lonely individuals, taking decisions in isolation which colleagues must either take or leave. It is a false, but seductive, picture, an oversimplified account of something far more subtle, and complicated.

In Leadership Without Easy Answers (1998), Ron Heifetz - who will be profiled in this Saturday’s FT - pointed out that leadership should not be seen as the responsibility of a single individual. Problems can be complicated and “adaptive”, not simply technical. Authoritarian approaches may not work.

In Leadership On The Line (2002), Heifetz and his colleague Martin Linsky argued that leadership can be perilous: “To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear – their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking…” they wrote. “People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game.”

In spite of the dramatic collapse, from “hero to zero”, of several famous business leaders in recent months, still we focus overwhelmingly on chief executives, waiting for the next hero to emerge for us to place our trust in. Away from business, President Obama is the latest heroic role model to provide inspiring leadership. But if and when he fails we will find another figure to replace him.

Life has changed, and leaders need to change too. The writer Michael Maccoby points out, in The Leaders We Need (2007), that “People today respond to different qualities in leaders than they did a generation ago.”

We still want to look up to our leaders, but we don’t want to have to crane our necks too far. As Jay Conger, a professor of leadership at Claremont McKenna college in California once put it: “We need leaders with shorter legs.”

Stefan Stern

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review contains a rare piece of commentary from a serving chief executive, Procter & Gamble’s AG Lafley. His article is called “What only the CEO can do”. It contains a run-down of the key tasks and responsibilities that fall to the organisation’s most senior manager.

Mr Lafley should be congratulated for sticking his head above the parapet and engaging in debate. Not enough CEOs do this. But then, not too many of them would be able to marshal an argument in such an interesting way.

Luckily I was able to follow up with “AG” on the phone last week. It turns out that in writing this piece P&G’s boss was repaying a long-standing debt to the late Peter Drucker. “I went to see him two or three times a year towards the end of his life,” Mr Lafley explained. “I committed to turning his notes into something.” After nine years in the CEO’s chair, he feels able to answer the question that Drucker used to put to him: what is the work of the CEO?

The central task, Mr Lafley argues, is to link the outside world with what is going on inside the corporation. This involves four main challenges. First, making sure that the voice of the consumer is heard loudest and clearest of all, above that of any other stakeholder. Second, deciding what business you are in – and equally, what businesses you should not be in. “People don’t volunteer to exit a business,” Mr Lafley told me. “That’s one of my jobs: to weed the garden.”

Third, balancing the need for performance in the short term with the need to invest for the longer term – “we err on the side of investing in the long term,” Mr Lafley said, “in fact we’re more like a Japanese company than a western one in that regard.” And fourth, the CEO has to shape values and standards. The values have to be connected to the realities of the outside world. “At P&G we’re purpose driven and values led,” Mr Lafley writes in his HBR article.

Only the CEO can achieve these tasks, he argues. This is what leadership means. Setting an example (Mr Lafley spends hours with customers all over the world on “in-home” visits). And never forgetting that you are being watched closely by all your colleagues.

“Employees are watching you even when you think you can’t be seen,” Mr Lafley says. The hugely successful turnaround of the Cincinnati-based giant since Mr Lafley’s arrival in 2000 would suggest that this is one CEO well worth watching.

Stefan Stern

The great financial crisis intensified at ultra-high speed thanks to super-fast broadband connections and increased computer processing power. Time to switch the machines off? No. But it is surely time to manage the flow of information better.

This will not be easy. Research led by the husband-and-wife-team Professors Andrew and Nada Kakabadse (he is based at the Cranfield school of management, she is at the Northampton business school) has revealed the depths of managers’ addiction to new communication technology. Around a quarter of the 1,200 professionals surveyed spend three or more hours a day on their e-mails and sending text messages. More than half the younger and middle-aged respondents never turn their phones off at all.

Three quarters of younger workers admit to being addicted to technology. Alcohol, tobacco, shopping: none of these temptations matches the appeal of fancy new gadgets and high-tech kit. The only good news is that, while confessing to their addiction, the majority of respondents deny that their use of technology is out of control.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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