The leadership brouhaha of the week was the sacking of Chelsea Football manager André Villas-Boas after only 8 months in charge. This means the London soccer club is looking for its eighth manager since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought it in 2003.
When not firing managers, Abramovich is famous for, among other things, spending $52,215.34 on a lunch for 6 in at Nello’s in Manhattan.
Villas-Boas’ error, like those fired before him (bar one who quit) is he didn’t win enough fast enough. In his charge the team won three of their last 12 Premier League games, and face exit to SSC Napoli after loosing the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round-of-16 tie.
Villas-Boas’ remuneration for the year, including severance, is around the $20m mark.
In industry foresight, noticing extremes helps us see and interpret less visible changes in the world. Stellar pay and commensurately rapid churn at the top of Chelsea FC clues us in to what is going on in the daily mainstream that we may be too immersed in to register.
High pay is nothing new. Also, evidence of high CEO churn is on the radar. A 2006 University of Chicago study showed CEO turnover was 17.4% per year 1998-2005, implying average tenure of less than six years. It related CEO longevity to three components of stock performance – performance relative to industry, industry performance relative to the overall market, and the performance of the overall stock market.
More recently, executive search firm Crist|Kolder studied Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies and found that while average CEO churn dipped during the recession it was back on the way up, hitting 13% in 2011.
What is less clear at this point is the correlation between higher pay levels and higher churn, that may play out more fully in the future. But if the trend is that CEOs are increasingly paid like sports (or sports management) stars — and they are — it’s reasonable to anticipate that this will be on an ever-increasingly short-fuse “win-now” basis.
If the analogy holds, we can expect chief executives to face shorter and shorter periods to justify their pay; probably the higher the remuneration the shorter the justification period. Where eye-watering sums are changing hands, fingers will be itchy on the trigger.
The poverty of management decision-making here is not just in embracing and fostering short-termism, the cancer of management. It is in prejudging and potentially wasting leadership talent, because short-term data is effectively no data. Put it another way, short-term wins or losses are at the mercy of randomness, such that what looks like good or bad results are almost always part of normal near-term fluctuation spread, as argued by Nassim Taleb in his book “Fooled By Randomness.”
Over the long term, twists of fate, or twists of ankles are ironed out, and quality prevails. Nobody would argue that Steve Jobs was not successful or not worthy of star pay. But Villas-Boas … won championships for Porto FC in 2010 and lost championships for Chelsea FC in 2011, and neither results tell us or Abramovich whether he’s any good or not.
The only thing we can expect with confidence is that where the sports-star model of remuneration migrates, Boards (or shareholders) will be eager to read too much into early data, and prone to make Abramovich-like decisions.read more
Warren Buffett surprised pundits when he revealed last month that Berkshire Hathaway had acquired a $10bn, 5.5% stake in IBM. “They have laid out a road map and I should have paid more attention to it five years ago… They’ve done an incredible job,” Buffett said during an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box.
Many of the dimensions of this incredible job – transition to service orientation and renewal of company culture, initiated by Lou Gerstner and advanced by just-retired CEO Sam Palmisano – have been well chewed over.
But one subtle and no less important part of Palmisano’s legacy has yet to play out. This is the renewal in leadership development itself at IBM, specifically via the IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC).
Once upon a not very long time ago, IBM, like other classic Western multinationals, structured executives into the field for ex-pat experience in the form of long-term postings: a 1-3 year tour of duty in some far-flung office before recall to the mother ship.
The CSC format, since 2008, forms teams of 6-10 young executives from IBM offices around the world and sends them to emerging market locations where they work intensively for a single month on a high-profile local assignment.
“It’s not a business trip” says CSC Director Stan Litow. “They rent a house, live together, focus 24/7 on the problem. They make an impact. They learn to deliver value on the ground as a team in a global situation.”
CSC programs have run in more than 25 emerging market countries, from BRICS goliaths to African minnows such as Kenya and Tanzania. In Kenya, for example, CSC provided advice on implementing a “Digital Village”; modernized the postal service; and establish a framework for e-government and electronic voting. In Tanzania, CSC helped develop an eco-tourism industry, and has put cutting edge technology into local universities.
About 200-500 IBM employees and executives are in the program at any one time. Teams are composed to represent all major skills in the company: information technology, marketing, consulting, finance. They spend about 2½ months in prep time, and the same afterwards in various forms of debriefing and handover to a new team.
Having this many people on a 6-month ‘sabbatical’ while delivering free consulting expertise and project implementation worth an average $250-400,000 per project, means IBM is footing a big upfront bill. But, aside from the venerable calling of doing good things with technology in the developing world, Litow maintains the costs are handsomely offset by benefits to IBM.
First, the company builds relationships and goodwill on the ground, and so gains a foothold in growth markets, which becomes a platform for follow-on work. Around 30% of IBM revenue is international, a percentage expected to grow rapidly.
Second, program staffers – future IBM leaders – get skills enhanced and perspectives built, in globally sourced teams, via practical immersion, which all closely duplicates the demands of expected future paid assignments. Since inception, 1,400 executives and staff have been through the program; a reservoir of talent that has “been there.”
Third, the program attracts and rewards aspiring talent. IBM gets 8-10,000 internal applications for the few hundred spots on offer, evidence that CSC is popular and relevant in-company. According to Litow, CSC opportunities help retain executive staff and attract new talent to the company.
The positive cost-benefit of the program for IBM is perhaps most proved in requests from a half-dozen other companies – including FedEx, Deere, Dow Corning, Novartis, PepsiCo, and Best Buy – for help in putting together similar programs, or to piggy back on IBM’s program.
In mid-2011, IBM announced a partnership with USAID’s Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism to provide resources for companies that are interested in pursuing strategies based on IBM’s model.
“The most vital, obvious, and underestimated lesson in the 100-year history of IBM is you must keep moving to the future,” said IBM President and CEO Sam Palmisano, opening the company’s recent ‘THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership‘ conference at the Lincoln Center in New York.
Further gratifyingly embracing the fundamental identity between leadership and successfully navigating the future, Palmisano continued: “It is so easy to stick with things that have made you a successful company or institution – a winning product, a profitable business model … but one of the core responsibilities of leadership is to understand when it’s time to change.”
And then, applying the mantra of respectable industry foresight analysts and practitioners (there are some): “It’s also particularly important to know what not to change, what must endure. To get that balance right is really, really hard.”
The full address is on Youtube.
The THINK conference is a key plank in IBM’s ongoing centennial year observance. It brought together 700 global leaders and IBM partners and employees, shining a light on leadership as a function that demands active, high-quality forward thinking.
Among the many insight nuggets was Carmen Medina, former Director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, commenting that “observing the present” is the only valid basis of future-exploration (correct); and that this sensemaking function is now being augmented by analytic and computational tools that make far better sense of all types of observed data and behavior, for example, social media behavior.
The old horizon scanning function really has become a much more complex, dynamic, and rewarding activity in the current era. Data visualization was also a key theme at the THINK exhibit.
Among the CEO delegates were Sir Howard Stringer (Sony); Jamie Dimon, (JP Morgan Chase & Co.); Jim McNerney (Boeing); Andrew Liveris (Dow Chemical); Peter Voser (Royal Dutch Shell); and Ellen Kullman, (DuPont.) Filling out Shell’s guest list were Abdullah II, King of Jordan; Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico; Laura Chinchilla-Miranda, President of Costa Rica; WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy; NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and media celebrities Charlie Rose and Tom Friedman. Selected video highlights are on the IMB100 site.
When I was at INSEAD for my MBA, I noticed it was fashionable for young men on the move in their careers to wear genuinely expensive watches. We’re talking $5,000 a pop and more (and no doubt they would upgrade in time.)
Me, I’d rather invest in my wine cellar: each to his own. The point is, it’s nothing new for rich men to spend handsomely on their timepiece. And nothing new for even richer men to lavish a fortune on signature and-or vanity projects.
So it’s all to type that Amazon founder and CEO billionare,Jeff Bezos, is spending $42m on his timepiece. The clock the size of a building, which will still take a number of years to complete, is being constructed deep in the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range, Texas. It is designed to run for 10,000 years.
On the clock’s web site Bezos says: “It’s a special clock, designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking… As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems. We’re likely to need more long-term thinking.”
This is partly the standard, “world-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart unless we wake up and change our lifestyle” plea for a long-term, sustainable, perspective.
But, in fact, the general thrust of communications around the 10K Clock is refreshingly low on planetary doom. Long Now Foundation founder member Steward Brand says of the clock: “Ideally it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment.”
So the clock is in fact about exactly what it says on the tin: just a symbol of long-term thinking, a monument to the value of a long-term perspective.
And while 10,000 years is no business horizon, it’s possible to interpret the clock as symbol not just socially, but also in terms of dollars and cents. In a short-term world, where most businesses are rated by the quarterly numbers, it is a living monument to making scaled-up and lasting investments, and not pulling the plug too soon.
Who better than Bezos to put up this monument? In his first report to Amazon.com shareholders in 1997 he said: “because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”
The company was founded in 1994, listed in 1997, and but didn’t post profit until 2001. But by the time it did, it was far bigger and more influential than imagined. It was on the road to becoming what it is today: the world’s biggest online retailer, period. Reflecting a final coming of age after 15 years, the share price (AMZN) has doubled and doubled again in the last two years.
Arguably Bezos’ true leadership genius at Amazon in the early days was not just seeing the long-term and scalable possibility (beyond book retailing) but also being able tactically to hold the short-termers at bay for long enough to do the building required.
As a business culture, we’re locked into annual reports and rapid product life cycles. We’re quick to say “fail-fast” and pull the plug on a fledgling project that’s in the red. Or we make a return, so good, let’s cash it in and do something else.
But Bezos was able to see and to say that a critical component of business leadership success is looking beyond your own or your competitors’ time horizons and scale horizons.
The leadership message in the clock is “Don’t think small. Forget short-term wins. Look beyond your time horizon. Give weight to the long-term possibilities. Build for tomorrow and allow the full potential of a project to evolve.”
At the time of writing, Japan is battling a nuclear meltdown and radiation emergency, and Fukushima could become a word suddenly the whole world knows, like Chernobyl.
Bloomberg News has called the whole tsunami crisis Naoto Kan’s “Katrina moment,” and one can only hope and pray for all concerned that the Japanese prime minister is a more competent leader than Bush was at this moment of human catastrophe.
As to the nuclear meltdown: If ever we have been warned about anything in the future, we have been warned about nuclear plant catastrophes. Not only have there been, as it were, verbal warnings going all the way back to the 1950s, but real-world events such as Three-Mile-Island and Chernobyl have fully fleshed out the scenario of nuclear reactor failure or near failure in populated areas.
If nuclear-generated electricity makes sense anywhere, it makes sense in Japan, which famously has no coal or gas reserves. But these are nuclear plants … built right on the Pacific Ring of Fire? Japan is a small island with 125 million people densely packed into urban areas. As we face the possibility of this many people put at risk, however the next few days play out it’s clear the risk and reward of nuclear energy here is out of alignment.
This is hardly news. The question is, why are the plants are there? And the answer is not a simple one of collusion or corruption of government, or shenanigans of power companies, although there may be some of that. It comes down to a misapprehension of probability and risk among leaders and decision-makers such that it appears that risk and reward are in balance, when in fact they are not.
To think about this, consider yesterday’s BBC Story: Japan tsunami ‘could be 1,000-year event,” saying last week’s tidal wave was equivalent to a giant wave that hit the Sendai coast in 869AD. The report says: ”It is not unusual for undersea earthquakes to generate tsunamis in this part of Japan. Offshore quakes in the 19th and 20th centuries also caused large walls of water to hit this area of coastline. But previous research by a Japanese team shows that (only) in the 869 ‘Jogan’ disaster, tsunami waters moved some 4km inland, causing widespread flooding.”
The point is, tsunamis are common, but “the big one” is a one-in-thousand year event — an extremely low probability outcome.
Here I’m strongly reminded of the days following the depth of the Credit Crunch, Bear Stearns’ collapse, and general world financial system meltdown of 2008. If bankers said one thing sensible through the whole period it was: “this was a one-in-ten-(hundred, etc.)-thousand probability outcome, and extreme ‘outlier’ event!”
A low-probability event means we can relax, right? Wrong. The problem is probability says zilch about impact. “Wild Cards,” or now more famously in Nassim Taleb’s terms, “Black Swan” events are low probability but of game-changing impact.
Taleb’s point, made repeatedly across his various books and articles, is that standard probability theory and Gaussian statistics lull analysts into thinking that because an event is low probability – an outlier in a normal bell-curve distribution – it is of low or lower consequence.
Ignoring the tail of the Bell Curve is okay if events are genuinely assessed as low impact. If they are high-impact aka “fat-tailed” events, they are the most important events we face in the future, in building or maintaining any system or organization.
A probabilistic framework misleads decision-makers because it degrades their attention to crucial events (by tagging them low-probability,) which means next thing they are betting banks on mortgage-backed securities, or building nuclear plants on earthquake fault lines.
In the pivotal moment of the movie “Remains of the Day,” US Congressman Trent Lewis (Christopher Reeve) in England in 1936 declares to the “gentleman-amateurs” around him who are blunderingly cosy-ing up to the Nazis: “leave politics to the professionals.”
It’s an expression of the 20th century zeitgeist shift to professionalization of not only politics, but all significant decision-making and management. Business certainly led the way through the century with the rapid rise of managers as a distinct class of professional, expecting the commensurate erosion of family-run firms of any real size and clout.
The problem with family firms are legion: under-qualified if not downright incompetent heirs thrust into positions they can’t cope with or don’t want, family wrangles, inheritance disputes, relative non-accountability of management leading to quixotic decision-making, secrecy mitigating against access to capital and therefore growth, and so on.
So the wisdom became that the family-firm management was appropriate in start-up mode, and then as companies scaled up and moved to external funding and responsibility to multiple stakeholders, professional management should take over for the good of everyone.
Or so we thought. There is a long-running counter-argument that family firms do many things better, even at scale. Key decisions are made with the fearless straight-talk that is often required, and without bureaucracy up and down the chain. Families may have their politics, but they don’t have the chronic office politics nor resume-polishing that besets so much of corporate life, wasting countless person-hours.
Furthermore, industry and business wisdom that is built up over generations stays in the firm rather than getting washed down the river every time the executive door revolves. The bottom line: family firms remain a more-than-viable model very much alive and kicking all across the world.
These are background issues to Randel Carlock (INSEAD) and John Ward’s (Kellogg) new book “When Family Businesses are Best,” (Palgrave, 2010) which is broadly about navigating a family firm in the changing, globalizing world.
What got my attention particularly is the authors’ contention that family firms are better at developing, retaining, and working to a long-term management perspective. That is, the family is an inherently long-term institution, and well-run family enterprises are run in such a way as to endure for the future for the family – and this is an advantage in navigating and surviving a changing world.
The term the authors’ use is for this kind of management is “stewardship.”
The root problem of most professionally managed businesses is they are run without stewardship – without concern for long-term well-being of the firm or its stakeholders. If we needed reminding, the banking crisis was the product of management that couldn’t be further from stewardship – taking absurd risks with other people’s money for short-term personal wins.
Banks have become the poster child for the follies of short-termism, but the reality is short-termism remains endemic across professional management, both in business and politics. Long after “après moi le déluge” CEOs have taken their packages and are on the golf course, others – employees, taxpayers, the environment, etc. – are paying the price.
At least, post-crunch, it is now incontrovertible that short-termism is an extremely poor strategy for managing a complex and uncertain future. “What gets measured gets managed,” and when what is measured is only the next quarter’s profit figures, bigger failure looms.
The family-run businesses offers a model of long-term management. It is a conservative non- “bet-the farm” model to be sure, but perhaps the path a real steward of value genuinely operating in the best interest of valued stakeholders would follow.
So how might one, without the real flesh-and-blood bond of family ties, get senior executives to think through the effect of their behavior on employees or stakeholders 10- or 20 years in the future, as the head of a family would? Surely only by creating incentive structures that mimic family stewardship – incentives that mean that leaders can’t walk away smiling until the organization (or the value it represents) has been safely passed on to the next generation.