Christopher Walker: Sisterhood brings down the bullies

Wednesday 18 December 2013 05:24

It's time to smash a few icons. I don't go into business bookshops often, but I ended up in one this week and to my horror found almost an entire section devoted to Jack Welch, like the Shakespeare shelves in Waterstone's.

For anyone who has missed his ongoing canonisation, Jack rose to the top of the US conglomerate GE, and through the imposition of the now almost mythical "Six Sigma" philosophy, became the darling of Wall Street. Apart from the clients, Jack focused entirely on people – his management team. Worthy as such, but Jack had to add in one more element. He sacked 10 per cent of them every year.

It is interesting to ponder how many US businessmen have modelled themselves on Jack Welch. He consistently tops the magazine polls, so I'd guess quite a lot of them. Business schools in the Nineties adopted his aggressive sports talk to describe strategy – thus there was not enough "strength on the bench" and more "pitchers" were needed in the boardroom.

This brand of macho management is now being challenged. The bursting of the TMT bubble and the associated corporate carnage led to the fall from grace of an entire generation of chief executives. The Nineties boom cre- ated a fierce breed of media-sassy, dynamic, ruthless leaders – part of a management philosophy that focused on profit at all costs and rewarded, indeed expected, a certain kind of behaviour.

Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling at Enron, all fitted a certain idea of what a leader in business should be. Warm and fluffy they weren't, but rather, to quote President Bush's description of Mr Lay, "one of the boys".

And you know who's brought them down? Women. All the great whistleblowers have been female. Cynthia Cooper "shopped" WorldCom but was actually pipped at the post by another woman, Geraldine Kelly, who tipped off the DTI almost three years ago. They are joined in the saintly sisterhood by Sherron Watkins at Enron, who deserves an award for standing up to the bullies. You could even add in Coleen Rowley's exposé of the FBI and the CIA, and their damaging, macho posturing.

One of the more interesting aspects of economic history is the way in which sea changes are accompanied by shifts in the balance between the sexes in the workplace. Wars, plagues and stock market crashes have all had this effect. Maybe the same is happening in this financial crisis. Sex discrimination cases are multiplying, the latest in the UK being that of analyst Louise Barton, given "only" a £300,000 bonus. She, and others like her, have rebelled against the loutish, macho work environment that many women have had to put up with, and which was so recently exposed in the Cantor Fitzgerald/Icap case.

In the wake of this current crisis, legislators and opinion formers are rushing to change the rules of business. They need also to address the culture. It is time to recognise that real diversity comes from accepting not just different kinds of people, but also different ways to behave. Women often complain that they are expected to act like men to get on, but I think the problem is more complex than that. All of us, men and women, are expected to behave like certain kinds of men. And it is this tendency to have a single role model that makes dissent difficult. Even when you spot fraud.

I popped in on a friend who was keen on management technique. He was out, but I noticed a copy of Jack, the autobiography of Jack Welch, on his desk. I scribbled on a PostIt: "Just make sure you are not one of the 10 per cent", but then thought better of it and tore it up. The next week he was fired.

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