No-one could have known it at the time, but the cleaner on the steps of Clydesdale Bank’s Glasgow office, sweeping up a cigarette butt one day in the late 90s, was an early warning of impending financial doom.
The cleaner was there because Fred Goodwin’s mother had been passing by. Seeing the cigarette butt, she called her son, then the chief executive of Clydesdale, to tell him about it. The man they called Fred the Shred interrupted a meeting to call a senior executive, ordering him to have the offending litter tidied up immediately.
The story comes from a new book about the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss, which paints a picture of a man obsessed with minutiae – from office hygiene to the designs of Christmas cards – at the expense of the responsible strategic management of a world-leading investment bank.
In Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men who Blew Up the British Economy, by Iain Martin, the former editor of the Scotsman newspaper, Goodwin’s ex-colleagues recall how he took a personal interest in the cleanliness of his office, going so far as to ban filing cabinets with flat tops, so that piles of paper would not be left on them.
One close collaborator, quoted by Martin in the Sunday Times said: "The job of chief executive wasn't really done by him in the normal sense of someone trying to strategise properly and see the dangers and opportunities ahead. He was obsessed by all sorts of small details and measuring things and all sorts of minutiae and crap in certain parts of the business ... We would spend hours in meetings discussing the wrong things. Colours for advertising campaigns, computer systems and targets were what grabbed him.”
But what role did the obsessive streak in Goodwin’s character play in RBS’ eventual downfall?
Professor Malcolm Higgs, a leading occupational psychologist at the University of Southampton, told The Independent it certainly can’t have helped matters.
“You occasionally find this narcissistic tendency in CEOs,” he said. “They want to control everything, they don’t want to know that they’re not perfect. It’s not conducive to successful leadership of a company.”
Lehman Brothers boss Dick Fuld had similar tendencies, Professor Higgs said.
“The big question is: how do these ‘corporate psychopaths’ get to the top? They’re actually quite engaging people, they can appear very visionary. But they can’t take any negative feedback, so they lose contact with reality.”
Of course, on the way up the corporate ladder, the kind of manic attention to detail that led Goodwin to stipulate that RBS’ new fleet of chauffeur-driven Mercedes exactly matched the company’s logo (and the interiors matched the carpet in head office) might actually have been an asset.
Goodwin the up and coming executive at consultants Touche Ross was, in Martin’s words, “a hard-driving executive trained to spot and prosecute weakness.” He was snapped up by Clydesdale, gaining the moniker “Fred the Shred” for his ruthless pursuit of cost savings. He joined RBS in 1998.
“Being focused on detail and getting things just right might have been a useful trait when he was working at a lower level,” said Emma Donaldson-Feilder, occupational psychologist and director of consultants Affinity Health at Work, which specialises in workplace leadership and management.
“But you’ll find that as people go higher up an organisation, the things that were actually strengths at lower levels become over-used and high-risk…. It sounds likes Fred Goodwin became obsessive and that took his attention away from things that were much more important.”
The diagnosis matches other symptoms that Goodwin demonstrated after rising to the top of RBS in 2001. Martin writes of how, like many a doomed leader, he obsessed over a grand projet – RBS’ glimmering new headquarters at Gogarburn, outside Edinburgh.
Alarm bells should have rung for anyone close to Goodwin. According to Prof Higgs, managers and leaders who give meticulous attention to minor details are often over-compensating for a very deep insecurity that on another, more serious level, they really don’t feel in control at all.
“There’s a huge difference between attention to detail and obsessive control and it sounds like he had the latter,” Prof. Higgs said. “If he’d paid more attention to some of the deals they were making, they may not be in the state they are in now. There is fundamental self-insecurity behind it. If somebody is obsessive about controlling minor details – then it’s time to worry.”
The bank aggressively expanded under Goodwin, becoming the biggest in the world with a balance sheet of nearly £2 trillion by 2007. But the gains were unsustainable and RBA nearly collapsed in October 2008, needing a Government rescue by more than 80 per cent nationalisation. Fred the Shred lost his job and, four years later, the knighthood that he had been granted in 2004, for service to banking.
Martin, who says he became interested in Goodwin after struggling “to square his image as a coming titan of finance with the strangely unimpressive, slightly geeky figure in an RBS corporate tie and sober suit” wrote in a Sunday newspaper: “The public-spirited thing for Goodwin to do would be to donate himself to the psychology department of a decent university so that academics could run years of detailed tests.”