Stefan Stern: Behind corporate walls, the masters of the universe weep

The stories I have been told are of secret grief and hidden angst bursting out in an extraordinary way. But the silence is at last being broken, the unsayable said

Thursday 16 June 2011 00:00 BST

Once he wanted his life back. But, having got it back, Tony Hayward, the former BP boss, is returning to the corporate fray. He has revealed his plans to launch a new energy company, called Vallares. He is going into business with the financier Nathaniel Rothschild to seek out investments in the oil and gas sector, mainly in the so-called emerging markets – Russia, the middle east, and Africa. Hayward will be a chief executive once again.

It is almost as though he is adopting the stance first advocated by the Barclays boss, Bob Diamond, a few months ago (and prior to the chancellor’s proposed banking reforms announced last night). Reflecting on the great financial crisis of the past three years Diamond observed: “There was a period of remorse and apology; that period needs to be over.” It was time, in other words, to get back to business as usual. Hayward seems to agree.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t one of the lessons of the crisis that we needed to stop and think a bit harder about our approach to business, and how companies were run? Ring-fencing retail banking is one step. But what happened to the fundamental reassessment of modern capitalism that so many called for and which some business leaders promised?

I must have missed it. Pick up the newspapers, read the business pages, and it is not obvious that a lot has changed. Pay for the most senior executives keeps rising, establishing an ever wider gap between those at the top and everybody else. Several European economies are hanging by an IMF-woven thread. Yes, some people march and protest, a few windows get broken, but almost everything else, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, looks the same. That silence you can hear is the absence of debate, a lack of criticism… or perhaps merely the acquiescence of despair.

We seem to be stuck. So it was heartening, in a way, when I recently started picking up examples of things being discussed rather differently, in private, behind closed corporate doors. It was only encouraging in part because the stories I have been told are of secret grief and hidden angst, bursting out in an extraordinary way.

These kinds of stories are as yet completely under-reported and under-analysed.

On three separate occasions in the past few months I have been told about startling moments of truth within the walls of some mighty global corporations. At last the silence has been broken, and the unsayable has been said. These episodes have one thing in common (and it is almost a leitmotif): the tears and misery of senior managers.

At an elite management consultancy an informal discussion about career goals degenerated into the sort of group confession masters of the universe are simply not supposed to make. Work was ridiculously intense, yet meaningless, they said. The financial rewards were considerable, but many wanted out.

A similar story was told by a partner in a major financial services firm. Men were now quitting for the same reasons many women colleagues had done. Home life was being too severely disrupted. Too little time was being spent with children and spouses. “It’s the men who come to see me in tears now,” I was told. But that is not how you “make partner”. That is not how you play the game.

Lastly, at a global IT firm, senior management convened a truth-telling session to find out why more women were not getting to the top. When the tales of frustrated ambition and injustice were told to company bosses (who were apparently unaware of the indignities being suffered by female colleagues), tears flowed once again, on all sides.

Of course, corporate life has always been competitive. There has always been a career ladder to climb. And ladders are narrow. There are bound to be only a few winners and quite a lot of losers in this game.

But today something more intense, and more damaging, is happening. The “delayering” of organisations – the removal of tiers of management and flattening of corporate hierarchies – has meant that career advances are fewer, yet bigger and less gradual. The career ladder has many fewer rungs on it. But some management jobs have got much bigger, to the point of being almost impossible.

At a business seminar recently I heard one senior executive describe with pride how fast one of his colleagues had risen to a very senior role, as though it had been a good thing to take on so much more responsibility so quickly, without having time to develop expertise in the previous role, or indeed very much maturity of outlook. But this is the choice on offer today. A faster but harder path to the top. Or a frustrated, exploited role lower down in the system.

The growing inequality in incomes – with vast rewards at the top, and stagnation (or worse) elsewhere – bears this out. And if there is a surprising lack of protest about this, then that is explained by two main factors: the reluctance of employees to blow the whistle on the system for fear of the consequences, and the studied insensitivity of those at the top. It is a winner-takes-all game, in which part of first prize seems to be a conscience untroubled by the struggles of those lower down the pecking order. Success (regardless of the personal cost) is its own vindication. Whingers deserve their fate.

One cause for hope is the refusal of many 20-somethings – the so-called Generation Y – to get sucked into this unappealing world. The staff turnover of graduate recruits at some professional service firms, for example, is high, and getting higher. New applicants have great expectations of what a job should offer them. But there is still no shortage of young people wanting to join élite employers to take on “extreme jobs”, as they have been called. And little is said or done by business leaders to suggest they feel that changes in working practices or underlying ethos is required.

Indeed, precious few critical voices are making themselves heard on these matters. Those who do speak up struggle to be reported by mainstream media. Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, has just published a radical new book called The New Capitalist Manifesto. He is a prolific blogger and tweeter too, with a rapidly growing worldwide following, but who has not yet penetrated many of the inner citadels of business and financial orthodoxy.

In a recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review web site – and praise be to them for publishing it – Haque let rip on some of the absurdities of contemporary business and economic life. “Just ask yourself,” he wrote, “if you were to walk into any corporation, would you find faces brimming over with deep fulfillment and authentic delight – or stonily asking themselves, ‘If it wasn’t for the accursed paycheck, would I really imprison myself in this dungeon of the human soul?’ ”

We are trapped, Haque argues, in a futile “pursuit of opulence”. “The pursuit of opulence,” he says, “isn’t just failing to make most of us better off in human terms — more troublingly, it’s also failing to ignite the spark of enduring wealth creation today: it’s transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, from young to old, from the powerless to the privileged, from tomorrow to today, from people and society to corporate ‘entities’.”

In her new book on the future of work, called The Shift, Lynda Gratton (a professor at London Business School) echoes some of Haque’s criticisms, saying that we risk ending up in what she calls a “default future”, which would be characterised by feelings of isolation, fragmentation, narcissism and exclusion. The future of work, Prof Gratton suggests, is already to some extent here.

It does not have to be like this. If we could make a series of shifts our individual and collective prospects could be brighter. The first shift involves moving from being a “shallow generalist” to being a “serial master” – genuinely knowing what we are talking about. The second shift requires us to give up being an “isolated competitor”, instead becoming what Prof Gratton calls an “innovative connector” – in plain terms, working far more collaboratively. The third shift involves giving up being a voracious consumer and instead becoming an “impassioned producer”, doing (and consuming) less, perhaps, but doing it better.

“Better capitalism”, alluded to recently by the Labour leader Ed Miliband, might look quite a lot like this. It could mean less inequality, less destructive competition, more collaboration, fewer over-hasty career moves and more development of mastery (or craftsmanship, as the academic Richard Sennett calls it). It could be both more human and more successful.

But that is not, currently, where we seem to be headed. Unless something more fundamental does change we should expect, I fear, more tears before bedtime.

The writer is Visiting Professor of management practice at Cass Business School, London

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