Managing others

Ravi Mattu

Tim Armstrong, CEO of Aol, has got himself into a bit of bother with his staff. Last Tuesday, at a breakfast meeting with Wolf Olins, he criticised his company’s efforts covering the SxSW festival in Austin and, in particular, the quality of work of his staff.

Apparently, he quickly backtracked – not by renouncing what he said but by declaring in an open meeting with staff that he should have made the point directly to them instead of to an external company. He stood by his assertion that the company’s work was not up to snuff.

Was this the right move?

Stefan Stern

A rare event in the business world last week: everyone seemed to agree about something. When Procter & Gamble’s former chief executive, A.G. Lafley, announced he would be retiring as its chairman in the new year, there was universal acclaim for his work at the company. Fortune magazine’s verdict was typical. “It is not overstating things to say that Lafley brought P&G into the next century,” it said.

Well done, A.G. But just to disrupt this mood of consensus for a moment, let me restate my belief that, sometimes, too much attention gets paid to individual CEOs, and not enough to the work that goes on elsewhere inside businesses. A.G. did not invent P&G’s blockbuster cleaning product Swiffer, for example, or lead on every aspect of the company’s merger with Gillette.

How important are CEOs, exactly? “The CEO is responsible for creating and leading the team that will deliver great performance,” says Morten Hansen, professor of management at the University of California at Berkeley, and also at Insead. “A CEO can have great impact by creating a strong team.”

The remainder of this article can be read here.

Stefan Stern

Do we really want boardrooms to turn into killing fields for under-pressure executives? Fritz Henderson lasted all of eight months as chief executive of General Motors before being shown the door last week. Not enough change, not fast enough, was the verdict of his unforgiving fellow directors. Would the next CEO please step forward?

It is no surprise that some boards are adopting a more muscular approach. Companies want to be ready to exploit improved trading conditions next year. But will a more abrasive boardroom encourage better decision-making? I have my doubts. Few people will worry if the cosy, country club board of the past is no more. But things may be moving too far in the opposite direction.

“One thing no one ever says to us is: ‘Oh great, we’ve got a board meeting tomorrow!’,” says Steve Wigzell, a partner at Praesta, an executive coaching firm. Some of the top teams he works with report an increased edginess, even unpleasantness, in relationships between directors.

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

Lucy Kellaway

The bear market in management bullshit is over. Last week, I came across two signs that managers’ brief flirtation with being sensible – which started the day that they watched staff of Lehman Brothers leaving the bank with their stuff in boxes – is now finished. It is time to be sillier than ever before.

A friend who works at a large, multinational company tells me that he arrived in the office the other day to find a bottle of water had been placed on his desk – and on every other desk in the 11-storey building – alongside a little card displaying a series of yellow blobs from the palest lemon to the deepest ochre. This represented the colour of urine depending on how much water had been consumed and was meant to tell employees whether they ought to be drinking more. Dehydrated workers were less productive, the card warned.

This is the most extreme example I have yet seen of a HR department infantilising the workforce and meddling in matters that should not concern it. In my experience, even the youngest child has a perfectly good way of working out whether it is dehydrated – which does not involve going to an office loo with a yellow colour card. If it feels thirsty, it demands a drink.

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

Stefan Stern

The scene is Detroit, a training room at the headquarters of one of the three great US car companies. A group of corporate vice-presidents is attending a course being given by a distinguished management thinker.

“What you are telling us is great,” the VPs say, “but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking to the next tier up.” The next week, working with more senior managers, he hears the same thing. “This is great, but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking with the chief executive.”

The week after that, our thinker finally gets in to see the boss. “This is great,” the CEO says, “but you should be speaking with my subordinates – I’d need their support in order to do it.”

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

Ravi Mattu

England football manager Fabio Capello has had a remarkably successful career in Italy, Spain and now as manager of England (ok, he hasn’t won anything yet, but they have qualified for the World Cup). Sports analogies are used too often in the world of management speak (even for a sportsfan like me) but according to an article in the Guardian about his presentation at the Global Sports Summit in London, Capello reveals a couple of interesting truths.

First, he says that when he took over England the quality of the players was very high in training but not in matches.

“I understood everything when they played Switzerland in the first match, the same players who played well in training played with fear, with no confidence, and I said this is a big problem of the mind,” he said. “Step by step, game after game, we have improved a lot.”

Ravi Mattu

Dame Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, said today that a number of prison managers had moved out “difficult” inmates because they were worried that their presence would negatively impact their inspection.

It seemed especially farcical because, apparently, it would have had no impact if the prisoners had stayed.

“The presence of those prisoners wouldn’t have affected our inspectors assessment at all,” said Dame Anne.

“Sadly for the many staff and managers who had worked hard to improve the two prisons, their efforts will inevitably be overshadowed by these events,” she said.

“This is deplorable, not only because of the effects on individuals, but because of the underlying mind-set that prisoners are merely pieces to be moved around the board to meet performance targets or burnish the reputation of the prison.”

What really struck me about Dame Anne’s comments was her concern that this would have a damaging impact on moral for the staff and lower level managers, and provide a negative example to them.

Stefan Stern

David Rubenstein, co-founder of Carlyle Group, the private equity firm, said last week that his industry ought to consider adopting a new name to describe what it does more accurately. How about “change capital”, he suggested. I am not sure that this is a good idea. If Mr Rubenstein thinks the word change will be less provocative than private equity, then he is likely to be disappointed.

Change is everywhere in business, and people tend not to be very happy about it. But it is not just nostalgia, or laziness, that causes the negative reaction. Change is rarely managed well.

What do managers get wrong about change? There is quite a long list. They underestimate how long it will take to get people to accept change. They fail to recognise how difficult it is to spread the message that change may be necessary or unavoidable. They do not understand what change feels like beyond the boardroom or the top management table. And, having finally got the organisation to accept the need for change, they forget to explain that the new direction or mission may change again, and possibly quite soon.

The remainder of this article can be read herePlease post comments below

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).

Ravi Mattu

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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