James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Management: The book not written

For more than 30 years, I kept notes on the silliness, childish attitudes, wrong-headed assumptions, dishonesty, greed and frequent over-the-top stupidities of American business leadership.

Oh, yes: I also took notes when I ran across a genuinely intelligent and able business leader, but the stack of those notes was thin by comparison. The truly intelligent and mature top executives, and I did encounter some great ones, are stuck in my mind yet; they were shining rarities.

As a business and economics reporter who consistently dealt with the top levels of management in many industries, but especially financial businesses, I had plenty of opportunity for observation.

I planned for most of those years to spend some considerable amount of post-retirement time writing what I intended to be a funny but scathing book about corporate management.

Just a couple of months after retiring from full-time newspaper work, however, I decided (a.) I didn't want to spend any more time with or on the people who wear the big titles in American big business, (b.) there is no way to make a dent in their thick skulls anyway, and (c.) neither our politicians nor the average worker has the guts to take them on, so such a work would be a complete waste of my time at worst, and at best merely fuel for employee grumbling that was almost constant anyway.

In truth, most Americans admire and actually fawn on the rich and powerful, no matter how cretinous.

Out went the notes, and away went the responsibility I had laid on myself for producing the book.

Now and then I still get the urge to smack some executives upside the head, of course, and that feeling grew much stronger and more frequent over the past few years, as it became ever more apparent that they were leading us into an economic disaster that didn't have to happen.

So let me summarize in a tiny fraction of the space, and without the hundreds of items of specific evidence, the conclusions of my 40-plus years of reporting and editing:

The American management class is made up, in vast majority, of dimwitted, ignorant cowards who, while dodging genuine responsibility at every turn, believe themselves to be the best, brightest and bravest heroes in all the land. Delusion is, in fact, their most characteristic flaw.

Nothing is sillier than the constant bleating about the rarity of management talent – bleating that has become even louder in the face of our economic meltdown and the accompanying incontrovertible proof that the people at the top of our financial institutions and most of the rest of our corporations have been wrong about almost everything they have done, said or preached throughout their grotesquely over-paid careers.

Those guys still claim with straight faces that they have to pay themselves and each other and their little vice presidential toadies and market manipulators huge sums of money in order to retain “management talent” that might otherwise go elsewhere. (Where they might go in this stinking swamp of failure is left unsaid.)

The degree to which any of the claimants believes what he is saying about the need for “retention compensation” is a measure of his intellectual incapacity. The degree to which he's just blowing diversionary smoke is yet another measure of his crookedness.

For a solid, clear analysis of the falsity of financial industry executive claims that the present mess is someone else's fault and that they couldn't have done anything different from what they did, see the op-ed piece by William D. Cohan in the March 12 New York Times. Cohan nails it.

Speaking of the banking and brokerage hotshots, Cohan says: “Could these Wall Street executives have made other, less risky choices? Of course they could have, if they had been motivated by something other than absolute greed.”

At another point, after laying down more evidence, Cohan says, “So enough already with the charade of Wall Street executives pretending not to know what really happened and why.”

Hear! Hear!

Much the same thing could be said about auto industry executives who are now playing along with the right-wing flapjaws who, with the goal of using our present economic crisis to further weaken labor unions, are trying to lay the near collapse of that industry at the feet of the manufacturing plant employees who actually make (or made) the cars.

Again, along with dishonesty, delusion: A great many top executives have been coddled, feted and had their behinds kissed so regularly and amorously for so long that they really believe themselves infallible. Ergo, all mistakes must have been committed by someone else.

Before some unreconstructed right winger emails me:

Your question is, “If they're so bad, how come the companies did so well for so long?” The answer, though possibly not simple enough for those who can think only in bumper sticker terms, is not all that complicated:

First, a great many companies, including almost all of our big banks and the American auto makers, profited mightily, but temporarily, by following models that had no chance of long-term functioning. There simply was no way that the mortgage-based securities could go on producing profits indefinitely; collapse was inevitable, and many people recognized that even though the bank leaders did not – or would not.

There was no way that the American manufacturers' refusal to recognize environmental needs and the coming collapse of gas-guzzling behemoths could lead to anything but a sales implosion. Most of the world could see that; auto company executives shut their eyes to it.

Secondly, it takes no genius to profit in an up market. It took some sense and perspective to recognize that the decades of credit spending that kept the American economy moving so swiftly for so long had to slow drastically at some not-too-distant point. Almost no American corporate executives had that sense or perspective.

Neither did they have the sense to realize that their taking bigger and bigger pieces of the economic pie for themselves while using their purchased politicians to squeeze the incomes of the vast majority of the world's people inevitably would lead at some point to a huge dropoff in markets for the crap they peddled.

Along with delusional thinking, another of the primary characteristics of American corporate management is cowardice – particularly a paralyzing fear of doing anything that everyone else isn't doing and a terror of taking honest responsibility for one's decisions and actions. Evidence has turned up showing that some bankers were aware that the sub-prime mortgage market was going to cave in soon, but lacked the guts to pull out while all the other banks were still playing the crooked game. They didn't want to face their directors, even though they owned the directors, and talk about why they were “passing up profits.”

Do you know what the enormous growth of university MBA programs in recent decades is really about?

The simple, but essentially accurate, answer is that it is yet another manifestation of corporate executives' desire to lay off responsibility onto “experts.” I'll say more about that in an upcoming essay, but for now leave it at this: Everything that can be taught about managing people and businesses – to someone who has the capacity to learn – can be taught in less than a day. The rest is technical detail, the deconstructing of normal morality and replacing it with an insanely inhumane template for business, and providing elaborate lessons in how to create excuses for failure.

More evidence of the fear of simple decision making is found in the fact that for as long as I can remember – and that's a long way back – American corporations and executives and would-be executives have jumped on one “management” fad after another. There have been dozens of such fads, perhaps 30 or 40 over the time since I first started following business and economics as a reporter.

There was the period – what? maybe 25 years ago now – when everybody who wanted to be somebody or thought he was somebody in the American corporate world read at least two books about the wonders of the Japanese management style. That was before Japan's rigidly structured economy went into a decade-long tailspin, of course.

A few of the others that come to mind: Quality circles, Total Quality Management, Matric Management, Term-Based Management, Peak Performance (whatever that was), and two or three types of “re -engineering.” A quick Google search will turn up a couple dozen more such bits of nonsense.

And every one of those fads produced very high-paying work for “consultants.” Of course, some “consultants” didn't need such a fad. They had their little niches that could be used in conjunction with whatever the flavor-of-the-month management style was – speech consulting, appearance consulting, consulting on how to make a presentation, and on and on and on.

All of those vacuous ideas, and all of that consultant money had and has one purpose: To absolve executives from responsibility and to push the onus of making decisions onto someone or something else.

The only proper response to the claims that some executive is worth millions or even tens of millions of dollars a year for his (or, rarely, her) management skills is a ripe tomato in the kisser followed by a severance notice.