Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Why oh why quality papers fall for sensational titles or are women still fair game?

I am really angry, sad and ready to pounce -all 3 at once due to media fueled attacks on professional women.

Latest in the line of summer games aimed at senior and professional women is the article in FT today (link coming later from computer). The title claims that WOMEN DAMAGE PROFIT of companies on whose Boards they sit (the print copy of FT has tthe same article on p.16 under the title Doubt cast on women in boardroom). When you read the article it says nothing of the sort. The researchers observe that women sit on the Boards of companies that HAVE lower profit and smaller market capitalization. There is no indication of whether the profits ACTUALLY fell since appointment of female directors or where they like that before they were brought on board. Similarly, we are not told if market capitalization was lower at the time of appointment. Boo to FT!

Since the beginning of the week Harriet Harman has been piloted from all sides. It started with a ridiculing her comment that more women at the top reaches in the banks would have made a difference to male driven competitiveness of winner takes all variety. It then moved onto her comment that Labour should have a woman in one of the top two jobs – hang on everyone, she was not asking for men to step aside and give both jobs to women for a change! That could have been noteworthy. When pens and daggers came out relating to Harman’s decision to get Rape Bill tightened, it all became too much, at least for me.

So, could all this be the result of mysogeny of journalist profession which according to Richard Reeves, Director of Demos, has the highest proportion of private school educated members of all professions -boys rebelling against a Headgirl.

Time to grow up me thinks.

PS. In the weekend FT Emma Jacobs rounds up on Harriet Harman critics in Sisterly suggestions cause hysteria. However, she conveniently forgets to mention her own paper and Brotherly uproar about female directors misreporting of the research.

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August 7, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Government, News, Style, Values | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

25 years on -and that from one of Tories leading thinkers

On Wednesday 20th May Daniel Finkelstein wrote a well argued article in the Times entitled Will the next Mr Speaker get the new era? He argues that large political parties arose in the era of mass media and that the information revolution is changing all that. The thesis is that the shift is thus from closed politics to open politics.

About time someone noticed. This is exactly what Norman Strauss argued 25 years ago, among other places in the Article “State of Mind that Can Stop Decline” He pointed out that government is not well designed for building a bridge from values to policies and legislation- as we so graphically see now! In the days well before Barack Obama went to his graduate studies at Harvard and much before Lord Layard from LSE recognised the need for lifting UK dismal levels of life satisfaction, Norman wrote:

Building a positive ‘can do’ altruistic ‘mental-welfare state’ is what modern politics should be about.

Any of the major parties doing anything about it? If not, why not?

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Government, Politics, Systems, Values | , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning Lessons from Iraq war- UK Government Inquiry

Sir John Chilcot (former senior Civil Servant) and 4 other officials, among them 2 historians, 1 ambassador (in Russia) and 1 member of House of Lords (responsible for judges appointment) will head an independent inquiry into the Iraq War to last a year- as announced by Gordon Brown, PM this afternoon in the Parliament.

All the comments I saw about this seem to miss the main point: Who among these 5 people is an expert on processes required to identify Lessons Learnt?

In addition, I wonder:
1. What support will the new Privy Cousellors have in doing this important job?
2. Why is this an ‘Inquiry’ rather than ‘Audit’?
3. Who will be responsible for putting LESSONS Learnt into practice?

Having worked in BP, where it was routine to carry out Large Projects Reviews so that Lessons Learnt can be applied in subsequent cases, I know that neither the process required to pinpoint them nor their later usage were easy or attempted by people without extensive experience in the actual domain nor without the deep familiarity of the process to be used. As it stands, I am deeply sceptical about the capacity of the appointed Committee to do the job they are tasked with so that results can be truly usable!

No wonder we, the knowledgeable public, are sceptical about the politicians and Government.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Diplomacy, Government, Knowledge, Leadership | | Leave a comment

Academic spat about the role of women managers/leaders in the current economic climate and the real influence

It is interesting to watch academic spats spill into the quality daily press especially when they go against the grain. Here we have three female professors, each from a different top 5 European Business School, responding to a male professor of a less well-known European Business School.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with the starting position of Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski where they register

dismay at the quality of debate on the role of women in the financial crisis. Specifically, we question the basis for current speculation that the meltdown might have been averted had more women been running the business world.

What I am surprised by is the lack of quality in their own argument, as I will show below.

Compare the titles: Soapbox: why women managers shine followed by Claims that women are inherently more cautious are deeply troubling. Now, let us look at the arguments and supporting data.

Prof. Michel Ferrary is the first author and uses statistical comparisons, namely his research on the correlation between French company stock index and percentage of women managers in the respective companies. He finishes with two questions about the conclusions one could draw about performances of feminised companies in different conditions. In turn, the letter authors Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski offer no data whatsoever yet finish with strong admonition that one must

beware of perpetuating unfounded stereotypes along the way.

More surprisingly, they choose to interpret the closing question from Prof Ferrary’s comment as

speculations (that) also come with dangerous implications

and follow by restating it to serve as a proof of their main point:

we are deeply troubled by claims that women are inherently more risk-averse or cautious or prudent than men, and that this essential nature somehow makes women more suited to leading in a downturn

So their whole argument hinges on whether one agrees that

Several gender studies have pointed out that women behave and manage differently from men. They tend to be more risk-averse and to focus more on a long-term perspective. A larger proportion of female managers appears to balance the risk-taking behaviour of their male colleagues.

This is an area where a lot of the research has been done yet the letter writers offer no data at all. They could have consulted Prof. Deborah Kolb short note Are Women Really Risk-Averse of March 9 in the Washington Post for research results.

The conclusion is best summarised by Ms Jackie Orme in End of the ‘ego driven’ leader who simply states

What we most need is a greater mix of personal qualities in our leaders.

As for the future importance and position of women leaders it is not the professors who decide. Ms Sarah Best has a telling example

The FT has already told us (March 11) that, of the 50 people in the world who have the position, skills and contacts to see us through the financial and economic crisis, just five are women. Women taking a leadership position? I’m not sure, it all sounds very risky to me.

At the same time (March 8th) Washington Post Leadership blog has asked its Distinguished Panel of 20 Experts (five of them are women) to address the similar question Testosterone and the Crash — you can read all answers there. With statistics that show that only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and that median bonus for men in largest USA companies is 3 times larger than for women it is clear that anything they had to say was just wishful thinking. May be the last word should be with Professor Warren Bennis:

Unfortunately, the explanations for the crash have little to nothing to do with DNA or brain circuitry but have everything to do with the serious design flaws of its system, a system run amok for a whole bunch of reasons and like all system problems are multi-determined: group think, greed, sloppy and lax regulation, and close to zero transparency. Those are the problems and they are deep and there’s no silver bullet like testosterone — or lack of it — that can solve them.

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Economics, Leadership, Letters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If you see what is required in good time why is it so difficult to open minds of opinion formers?

Those with the classical education know about the fate of Cassandra. For others suffice to say that by telling truth to power got her into deep trouble. This may not be so dangerous in our times, yet it is certainly not appreciated and most likely totally ignored.

Just follow the controversy brewing about Sir Gus O’Donnell’s comments reported in the Financial Times about the vacuum at the top of US Treasury civil service in times of real crisis. We can add to this the thoughtful follow up by Willem Buiter in his Maverecon blog post To the victor go the spoils: who answers the phone in the US Treasury? in the same paper who points out the costs The price of the US spoils system: the emasculation of US macroecononomic policy making. However, only two days earlier in the same paper two eminent USA professors have declared about the same situation that When a house is on fire, you put all your initial effort into putting it out.

Lets turn to the economic situation in UK. A day earlier in the same paper we have an article where Gillian Tett in Lost through destructive creation starts off with:

Six years ago, Ron den Braber was working at Royal Bank of Scotland in London when he became worried that the bank’s models were underestimating the risk of credit products. But when the Dutch statistical expert alerted his bosses to the problem, he faced so much disapproval that he eventually left.

“I started off saying things gently . . . but no one wanted to listen,” Mr den Braber recalls. The reason, he believes, lay in “groupthink . . . and pressure to get business done” – as well as a sheer lack of understanding about how the models worked.

Tales of that nature go some way to explaining how the west’s big banks brought themselves to their present plight and tipped the world into recession.

Now remember, this is the paper that has twice ignored the attempts by Norman Strauss to point out how these issues can be addressed at the fundamental level first in Q3 2008 and then in December 2008. Yet the Editors are willing to give space to the contributions like the most recent An unruly phenomenon in constant need of social control.

Let Cassandras have their say! Otherwise we will be indeed stuck with the closed circle of Future of Capitalism Top 50 leaders with no new face from another discipline, a young thinker or an old rebel among them framing the debate about all our futures!

PS I have just spotted a letter that fits some of the contrarian criteria Let a few uncomfortable truths appear on your pages, FT by Dr Roman Wolczuk. A case of synchronicity or?

March 12, 2009 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Future of Capitalism, Government, Leadership, Letters, News, Politics, Strategy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People are noticing we were wrongly led – who and what now?

While various pundit produce a growing number of articles and papers on the causes of the world economic problems, one things is becoming very clear. We were led into the credit crunch and crisis of confidence.

I know this is a bold (!) statement. A very short explanation will suffice for now.

First, while we were led this leadership was not of the kind we currently recognise as such. The leadership was blind through sheer lack of the awareness among those at the top of various organisation. They simply failed to recognise that the multinational corporations they may be running or an ever increasing number of G-type groupings (G8, G20, EU etc) they belong to mean one thing – world is strongly interconnected! This matters far more than anyone has recognised so far. Some commentators are thus calling for systemic solutions or looking for systemic approaches. Surprisingly, these voices are still in great minority. They also seem to be coming from non-anglo-saxon world.

The failure to understand the need for a systemic perspective permeates the regulation as well. Basel I and Basel II are clear examples here from the banking sector.

The second characteristic of the crisis is easily explicable by Darwinian evolution. A growing chorus in the press, including the Financial Times, and in the UK Parliament is bringing up so far un-sayable fact that our corporate Boards are highly inbred and lack vigour, real talent and true diversity. In other words these large companies as they are now are a dying breed as much as dinosaurs were.

Add to this the third circumstance – that of the steadily declining education and bonus systems rewards for failure, and we have truly serious situation. Decisions are being made by people caught in the stampede of the press and TV stations hungry for instant action. Politicians make pronouncements about initiatives and policy changes that take far too long to start. When they are implemented, sheer complexity of the systems to be introduced (IT as well as human) overwhelms the capabilities of those charged to make it happen. Long standing dumbing down of education coupled with lack of transparency of the conditions for progress up the organisational ladders and supported by a totally warped reward system, make for a real witches brew!

However, the solutions proffered by our Governments do not appear to show that the politicians or their advisers have grasped these simple truths. They show little inclination to engage in serious thinking. All the summits in the world are no substitute for taking the strategic leadership stance to explore the situation for what it is – a mess of our own making that requires a different approach and totally different group of people to solve it! Same goes for HR Directors, for all their optimism and expanding role!

We are not talking about the whistleblowers. We are advocating leadership by Mavericks and Contrarians. It is clear that HR Departments and their function are very much behind the times. New skills and approaches that handle paradoxes, dilemmas and dynamic situations as well as people with capabilities to build relationships are needed and yet in very short supply! However, even under the conditions of threat, current powers that be along with those who put them there continue to follow the lemming route of more of the same just bigger.

This is neither desirable nor necessary. We need a new party and people with real courage. What next and how to go about it is the topic of a future post.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More calls for wisdom and integrity- Wall Street Journal and Peggy Noonan

As the time for inauguration of President-Elect Obama draws nearer, there are more reflections on the state of the nation in America and his task ahead. So, in her recent article in WSJ, columnist Peggy Noonan says:

The reigning ethos seems to be every man for himself.

An old friend in a position of some authority in Washington told me the other day, from out of nowhere, that a hard part of his job is that there’s no one to talk to. I didn’t understand at first. He’s surrounded by people, his whole life is one long interaction. He explained that he doesn’t have really thoughtful people to talk to in government, wise men, people taking the long view and going forth each day with a sense of deep time, and a sense of responsibility for the future. There’s no one to go to for advice.

He senses the absence too.

It’s a void that’s governing us.

She finishes with saying:

What a task President-elect Obama has ahead. He ran on a theme of change we can believe in, but already that seems old. Only six weeks after his election he faces a need more consequential and immediate. In January, in his inaugural, he may find himself addressing something bigger, and that is: Belief we can believe in. The return of confidence. The end of absence. The return of the suit inhabited by a person. The return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead.

Much as she seems to think that these are new challenges, they really are not. Though UK is by no means as large as USA, the scale of the undertaking faced by the incoming Thatcher Government in late 1970’s was much larger than that now laying ahead of President-Elect Obama. One of the main reasons for the difference is that almost all major countries in the world are affected by the current economic downturn in similar ways. So far it would appear that they have followed very similar routes to trying to find ways out. Yet, none seems to have taken on board the lessons that have been so successful in turning around UK economy and bringing the much needed ‘return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead’ Miss Noonan seeks above. What is required is neatly summed up by Norman Strauss in his article appropriately entitled “State of Mind that can Stop Decline”.

How do we make sure that leaders pay attention to the lessons of the past?

What sort of leadership across the society do we need now?

December 22, 2008 Posted by | Business thinkers, Government, Leadership, News, Strategy, US Elections08 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Guardian 20 Jan 1984 – Why this Applies now to the Financial Crisis

Sometimes it requires a long time and a really deep crisis to get a previously unacknowledged practical proposals to gain currency in a new light. We suggest that the article Norman Strauss wrote in January 1984 provides just such example in the current global financial crisis. It specifically indicates:

– typical distinction between GOOD GOVERNANCE and GOOD Government

– more subtle distinction is between Systems as currently understood and the system dynamics over time = as they really are

– Trust is a Systems Issue which has to be treated as such.

In addition, it raises some fundamental questions like:

– How does governance relate to the dynamic  of the governing system?

– Is consensus system equilibrium and/or stasis?

– What is the relationship of breakdown and consensus/governance?

Incidentally, even high quality financial daily like Financial Times did not wish to recognise the root causes of the impending crisis nor engage in the discussion about ways to address it before it becomes as serious as it is now. How do we know? Well, by the enclosed letter remaining unpublished in spite of being submitted twice (first in January 2008 and then in April 2008). The point of the FT Au Contraire letter is that it was starting to apply at the frequency which regularly displayed the cracks that were beginning to undermine the current system and were accelerating it towards breakdown.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Government, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , | 1 Comment

The case for live wires in Whitehall- how far has it happened 25 years on?

Above we relate why The case for live wires in Whitehall is relevant today in the financial crisis. Simply, it would appear that little has changed in the Civil Service from those days almost 25 years ago! One needs only read Sue Cameron articles in FT, like Can-do civil servant in a world of wait-a-minute men and Tory cleansing of clipboard men to see that this is still a far of goal.

Yet, we are now in the grip of a crisis that affects UK at large and requires decision making capabilities in the Government and within Civil Service that far exceed those available. We do not have years to get this into place. And external consultants per se would not do. Ray of hope is that some Ministers like Lord Drayson recognise this you can hear his specific suggestions stated at NESTA on 4th December 2008. He emphasised the need for fast decision making, ability to take risks and need for taking responsibility by civil servants working in his Department.

May the real reforms begin.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Government, Innovation, Leadership | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FT 11th Nov.2008 Leadership Lessons from 55 Years ago_Stephen Stern

Suddenly, history and leadership are being intimately linked.  Whether it is when refering to Barack Obama victory in US elections and looking for parallels with previous presidents or on BBC Radio 4 where Anthony Roberts explores the links between historians and leaders, military in the first program and political in the forthcoming one.

However, the best and simplest is the recent article by Stephen Stern in Financial Times Leadership Lessons from 55 Years ago. Here are a few quotes:

No wonder historians are worried about the disappearance of documentary evidence now that everything is being e-mailed and text-messaged. These typed pages, with all their blotches and imperfections, summoned up the past….

…I have rarely read such clear, purposeful and persuasive thoughts on leadership, delivered in only a few sentences.

Leadership is “the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action”, the notes state. “The art of controlling them, directing them and getting the best out of them.”…

(skip)

The notes contain a special section on “man management”. Some of this stuff feels quite radical, a) for 1955 and b) for the army. See what you think: “The business of man management takes time and it requires the taking of infinite trouble … you cannot deal with material you know little or nothing about. Your men are your material; you must know all about them …You must give each one individual study and be prepared to make an individual approach to each. You must be something of a psychologist.”

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Leadership | , , , , , | Leave a comment