Hard times

Ravi Mattu

This is extraordinary and surely a first. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz announced his resignation on Twitter – in the form, no less of a haiku.

Stefan Stern

So, the replacement CEO at General Motors, Fritz Henderson, has himself now been ousted. If we all purchased new vehicles as often as GM has replaced CEOs in recent months the auto industry would have a lot less to worry about.

Continuity and change: this is the trade-off which leaders have to manage. Clearly at the moment GM needs more of the latter than the former. But we risk over-emphasising the impact a single leader can have. Change has to be brought about by the leadership team and by senior management generally. It is not just down to one person. Knifing a CEO gives us a story to gossip about but does not change the fundamental challenge at the company.

After Mr Henderson’s decision to sell GM’s Opel subsidiary was reversed by his board he was probably doomed. But his fellow board members would be mistaken in believing that they will rapidly make things better by putting a new person in at the top. The challenge remains the same. Difficult decisions still have to be made. There are no quick personnel-related fixes available.

Paradoxically, bringing about successful change means understanding the value of continuity.

Ravi Mattu

Earlier this evening, the winner of the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award was given to Liaquat Ahamed for Lords of Finance, his history of how central bankers’ mistakes led to the Great Depression.

As it happens, I shared a table at the ceremony with Mr Ahamed and his publishers – and managed to keep from revealing the winner to any of my dinner companions.

The book bowled over the judges – but did it bowl you over, too? Do you agree with decision or do you think one of the other shortlisted titles were superior?

Have your say in the comments section or vote on the awards homepage.

You can also see video from the event at the London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and find extra information about the winner and the awards.

Ravi Mattu

The Royal Mail and its unions are at loggerheads. Again.

I moved to the UK in 1997 and like a letter that never reaches its final destination, turmoil in the organisation is one of the business stories that has been a constant throughout the time I have lived in the country.

Every year, it seems to have lurched from crisis to crisis: successive bosses have said that the service needs to modernise or die; unions and workers battle them back in negotiations, claiming that ‘modernisation’ is a code word for gutting the organisation, cutting jobs and reducing salaries to disastrous levels; and the government, publicly at least, seems keen to stay out of it as much as they can (though I have to say, Lord Mandelson’s statement on the decision by the CWU to strike – “Candidly, I think it is suicidal” – did strike me as extraordinarily strident).

Luke Johnson

Optimism is the elixir that makes everything possible. It sparks confidence – and that fuels ambition, which in turn triggers action. It leads to new inventions, new companies, new jobs and a higher standard of living. Without this sense of hope in the future, life is a grim affair, a kind of regression back to the Dark Ages.

Ravi Mattu

Ravi Mattu

I just spoke to a book publisher who gave an interesting insight into how the downturn is affecting their business. Because so many major book chains have made people redundant or laid them off, this pubilsher was having to factor in at least two extra weeks into their distribution schedules to getting titles on to shelves. There are all sorts of implications as a result of this – stock has to stay in the warehouse longer, it takes more time to start making money from them and so on.

Ravi Mattu

If you haven’t seen it already, I would highly recommend our Future of Investing series. There are a lot of interesting contributions (yes, I would say that, but check out the list of people involved – Martin Wolf, Mohamed El-Erian, Andrew Lo, Gillian Tett, Robert Shiller etc – and tell me if I’m wrong) but especially good is today’s fascinating interview with the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, which considers why ‘efficient’ markets collapse and why we need some new theories on markets.

It’s also worth highlighting an article Prof Mandelbrot wrote with Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb three years ago, for the FT’s Mastering Uncertainty series. They argued that how business approached uncertainty was the wrong way round. Risk models focused too heavily on the norm rather than the exceptions. So, just because something is correct 95 per cent of the time doesn’t mean that should predominate when the remaining 5 per cent are important enough that they could bring down the whole system.

As you would expect, they explain it much better than I do.

Ravi Mattu

Time magazine (and a number of its sister publications and websites within Time inc.) is running a year-long series on the future of Detroit.

There are few cities that have experienced as much change – not, it seems, for the better – as the result of the changing nature of business. While there may be a lot of popular anger at banker and their bonuses (in the UK at least), the decline of Detroit from being one of the biggest and most prosperous cities in the US into one of its most savaged.

A few statistics tell a grim story:

By any quantifiable standard, the city is on life support. Detroit’s treasury is $300 million short of the funds needed to provide the barest municipal services. The school system, which six years ago was compelled by the teachers’ union to reject a philanthropist’s offer of $200 million to build 15 small, independent charter high schools, is in receivership. The murder rate is soaring, and 7 out of 10 remain unsolved. Three years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, unemployment in that city hit a peak of 11%. In Detroit, the unemployment rate is 28.9%. That’s worth spelling out: twenty-eight point nine percent.

PS: For anyone who hasn’t seen it already, I would recommend rewatching Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s first film, which charted the decline of Flint, Michigan when GM closed its factory there.

Ravi Mattu

If you haven’t seen it already, do check out “State of Play”, our excellent series of interviews with chief executives of some of the UK’s biggest companies.

Leaders so far: Francis Salway of Land Securities; Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP; Warren East, Arm Holdings; and Michael Smith of Mind Candy.

Tomorrow: Justin King of Sainsbury’s who has some interesting things to say on how consumer behaviour may well have changed for good as a result of the recession.



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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