Monthly Archives: March 2010

Stefan Stern

In London we are bracing ourselves for tonight’s first big pre-election televised debate - between the three candidates to be chief finance minister (or Chancellor of the Exchequer, as we call the job) after the election: Alistair Darling (incumbent, Labour), George Osborne (Conservative) and Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat).

All three are going to make the best of a bad job, presenting partial or distorted information to make their case. That is not surprising. They are politicians, after all.

But what if you were interviewing candidates for the position of chief financial officer at a public company? Wouldn’t you want them to have a firm grasp of the facts?

In the wake of the financial crisis, politicians have been quick to criticise reckless bankers and others who failed to keep proper control of their businesses. But when politicians practise their own version of “business as usual”, the results are not pretty. Maybe our elected representatives would be respected and trusted more if they were prepared to speak more plainly, honestly and accurately about the state of the nation’s finances.

Stefan Stern

An interesting little snippet of information here from Marketing Week. According to data from the pollster YouGov, British Airways’ brand has suffered less from the recent strike than from the calamitous opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 two years ago.

It seems that management’s self-inflicted wounds can be deeper than those caused by striking workers.

Stefan Stern

I had the great pleasure of catching up with Dov Seidman this morning, when he came into the FT’s offices to meet me and my colleague John Plender. Dov is a remarkable guy. He has degrees by the armful: bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy from UCLA, PPE from Oxford – followed by Harvard Law School. All this after wrestling with dyslexia as a child.

He is an entreprenuer with ideals. He founded LRN, his consultancy, 15 years ago, to pursue his belief that businesses needed to adopt an ethical approach. But he managed to write a successful book on the subject, How, in 2007, without banging on endlessly about ethics. LRN now has around 300 employees worldwide, and has an impressive list of corporate clients.

Dov is different – free-thinking and original. He is a Davos regular, and is much quoted by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman (and me). Today we had a vigorous hour-long conversation, during which time he raised any number of interesting and important points. Here are two of them:

Ravi Mattu

Want to figure out how pirates think? Well, apparently the UN has gone some way to figuring it out by deciphering their business model.

Hat tip: The Browser

Stefan Stern

Two big industrial disputes have erupted in Britain today. First, talks between British Airways and the Unite trade union broke down, meaning that this weekend’s strike on BA seems almost certain to go ahead. Second, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union announced that signal-workers on the railway have voted, by a small majority, to go on strike as well.

The only frustration for newspaper headline writers is that, since spring has finally burst into life this week, these two strikes cannot be characterised as constituting a “winter of discontent”. But it is an opportunity to ask if the so-called British disease – industrial unrest – has reappeared.

Ravi Mattu

Last week, Jason Hirschhorn and Mike Jones, the new co-chief executives of MySpace, gave their first interview since taking over from Owen Van Natta. They are the second duo to gain some prominence in recent weeks. Last month, SAP, the technology company, announced its own double-headed form by appointing co-chief executives to replace a single one.

Schumpeter, the management columnist at The Economist, made the point that last week that such a model works much better in technology companies where there is a definable split between the innovation and technology functions and the sales and marketing role.

Today’s Judgment Call, the SAP heads, an academic and a PR guru all weigh in on how it can be made to work – and how it can easily go awry.

Stefan Stern

Upsetting news in from Milan last night, where the English soccer superstar David Beckham tore his Achilles tendon, almost certainly putting him out of this summer’s World Cup.

At the age of 34 Beckham is clearly not quite the player he was. It seems unlikely that the England boss Fabio Capello would have picked Beckham to start matches in his ideal first eleven. But his presence in the squad would have lifted his fellow players. And he was likely to make several appearances coming on to the pitch from the substitutes’ bench. He remains a brilliant crosser of the ball, and can still deliver a deadly free-kick.

Optimistic English football fans – there are a few out there – will console themselves with the thought that, in 1966, England won the World Cup without the apparently irreplaceable Jimmy Greaves playing in the latter stages.

There may be another reason for the optimists to reinforce their sunny outlook. Football, obviously, is a team game. Individuals have to step up and take responsibility, playing complementary roles. There is no time to look wistfully over to the substitutes’ bench waiting for the saviour Becks to work his magic, as he did at Old Trafford in 2001 and Sapporo in 2002.

No: the players who are on the pitch will have to do the job. There will be no David Beckham (or Michael Owen, for that matter) to rely on. What an opportunity for the next generation of players to grab. All they have to do now is beat Brazil or Spain and the cup’s theirs!

Stefan Stern

You may have missed this story by my colleague Jonathan Soble in Tokyo last week. The basic thrust of it is that employee representatives at Toyota had informed senior management in 2006 that they were concerned about falling quality at the company. “We fear that processes vital to safe automaking have been cast aside in the name of competitiveness,” one union leader said.

It is true that this leader came from the “All Toyota Labour Union”, a break-away from the more established in-house union. But this story tells us two things. First, listening to employees (consultation) may take time but can save you from greater problems in due course. And second, staff associations or “approved” unions, while more polite and restrained, may not give you the independent feedback managers sometimes need.

Last month I wrote in this blog: “I expect that, down on the production line, Toyota employees could see exactly what was going on. That is the Toyota way.”

I am glad that, in this sense at least, my faith in the company has been confirmed.

Stefan Stern

Tricky things, partnerships. Their great advantage is that you have to proceed by consensus if you want to get anything done. Their great disadvantage is that you have to proceed by consensus to get…

An interesting letter appeared in this paper today from Ashley Unwin, a partner at PwC. Mr Unwin was responding to a report from the Management Consultancies Association, which stated that consultants are, by and large, doing good work that represents value for money.

But Mr Unwin wants to go further. Firms should consider accepting fees based on “realised value” – that is, tangible, measurable results. This has been talked about for some time, but is practised only rarely. Before joining PwC Mr Unwin worked for the private equity group Terra Firma, where he was a managing director, and spent 18 months at EMI (seems to be the average tenure there these days).

His letter ended with this challenging kicker: “It remains to be seen whether any firm is brave enough to adopt this [approach], ours included.” [My italics] Might there be some lively conversations going on at Embankment Place just now, d’you think?

Ravi Mattu

If Canada’s gold medal in ice hockey wasn’t enough to convince you of the country’s love of the sport, an Ontario company has taken it to another level. IT Weapons has installed a hockey rink in their office as a way both to satiate the bosses’ love of the game but also as a way to attract and retain talent.

According to Jason MacBean, the company’s chief architect: “One of our biggest challenges is retaining young, smart people, and young, smart people need a blend between their personal lives and work. The people we want to attract are people who will appreciate this,”

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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