The Myth of Maximizing Shareholder Value

A while ago I was watching Bill Moyers interview Columbia professor and Nobel Memorial prize-winning economist Joe Stieglitz. Moyers was decrying Wall Street and the culprits of the 2008 financial meltdown, and in response to his question of how to remedy this, Stieglitz replied “we forgot that we make the rules.” He went on to say (I’m paraphrasing) that there isn’t and never was a ‘free market’, and that all markets, to serve society properly, require some degree of regulation. Fixing the problem, Stieglitz said, requires telling the politicians to change the rules. He also denounced the widely accepted idea that the real purpose of any business is to maximize shareholder value. In our business, I’ve come to understand the intense pressure that CEOs are under, not the least of which comes from meeting quarterly share price expectations. Yet I have never accepted that; instead believing that when a company values and grows it’s people, they in turn delight customers, innovate, create, and all stakeholders, including shareholders, win big. Shareholder return is a result, not an objective in itself, and when it becomes the overriding objective, we arrive at where we are now.
The link below is a review of Roger Martin’s book Fixing the Game, in Forbes magazine, back in November, 2011. Martin describes how a shift in the 1970′s to the notion that maximizing shareholder value was the true purpose of a business, led to the financial meltdown and the income distribution gap that, he contends (and I agree) is threatening the very system of American capitalism that originally strengthened democracy.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/11/28/maximizing-shareholder-value-the-dumbest-idea-in-the-world/
The takeaways for me are threefold:
1) that the majority of CEO’s are well-meaning and capable people, but they are handcuffed by the widely accepted “expectations market” that demands quarterly guidance, and compels a short-term focus and earnings management. This is both damaging to society, and unsustainable in the long run. To allow these leaders to revert to focusing on ‘delighting customers’, and building sustainable businesses that add tremendous value to society, we must shift away from the mindset that the purpose of a business is maximizing shareholder value. Further, regulatory policy must shape and enforce a corresponding behavioural shift.
2) Research continues to show that companies that prioritize employees, customers, and then shareholders (Martin cites J&J, P&G, and Apple) actually generate better (often significantly better) results than those that simply manage to expectations. This implies that reverting to a ‘real-market system’ yields a win/win result for all stakeholders. It takes a longer-term focus, and sometimes more work, but is sustainable and more stable.
3) The problem is much worse now. Four years after the article was written, investment banks are significantly larger than before the 2008 crisis, and Wall Street’s quarterly guidance system continues to reward irresponsible CEO behavior. Executive compensation at best reinforces short-term thinking, and in worst cases, creates moral hazard and self-serving decision-making.
While this story deals with the financial and business sector, the need for strong, authentic leadership in all sectors has never been greater. No one who reads the daily news would deny that the world is experiencing that proverbial ‘paradigm shift’ in not one, but many areas: business, geopolitical, science and technology, cultural, media and more. We are in a place where, as Marshall Goldsmith wrote, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” We need to reinvent a lot of things; discard old systems that no longer serve us well. That calls for deep transformation, and that, in turn calls for courageous, authentic leaders; leaders who remember that we make the rules.

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VW Trust: Gone in 60 Seconds…

Upon reading the recent Volkswagen admission to installing stealth software that fooled EPS testing devices, my immediate thought was “here we go again. yet another corporate ethics scandal.” Since 2008, we’ve read increasing accounts of multi-billion dollar fines levied to banks, for everything from LIBOR manipulation to sub-prime mortgage deceit. Such amoral behaviour seems to have become commonplace news in all sectors: Enron engages in ‘off balance sheet’ accounting; JP Morgan Chase is fined $9 billion for their role in the sub-prime fiasco; drug-maker Turin jacks price of 62 year old cancer/AIDs drug by 5500%; Volkswagen sidesteps the EPA regulations for 11 million cars. Just another day in corporate world.
Public complacency is understandable; repeated examples of slap-on-the-wrist, no admission of guilt deals between offenders and government regulators have left us feeling cynical and helpless to alter the corrupt practices.
These events however, are indicative of a larger, much more serious underlying problem: the confusion of purpose; confusion between the original purpose for which an organization first formed (say, to make an affordable, reliable “people’s car”) and the purpose dictated by Wall Street: uninterrupted growth in quarterly earnings per share.
That confusion just cost Volkswagen $28 billion in market value, not to mention the brand trust that took decades of the dedicated hard work of thousands to engender. Gone in 60 seconds.
When discussing purpose, one of my favorite analogies is the saying “profit is like oxygen; we absolutely need it to survive, but it is not the reason we live.” Of late, for corporations, it has become the latter, sometimes due to greed and corruption, but often due to intense pressure from gradually evolved systemic forces.
There was a time when businesses started due to an idea. Someone detected a market need and organized a company to create a product or service to satisfy that need. Financial markets provided access to capital for those companies, and the return to investors was a cost of creating and getting the product to market. Somewhere between that time and now, the purpose seems to have shifted, and the pressure on leaders to comply with that shift is enormous. Facing decisions of whether to go with long-term strategic product or service investments, or to satisfy analysts expected numbers, which leader action does the system reward? And sometimes, the pressure creates a trap from which even well-meaning leaders cannot escape.
Back in 1982, Volkswagen CEO Carl. H. Hahn embarked on an aggressive growth strategy, one with aspirations of global market dominance and cost leadership. To be fair, back then, that strategy may have made perfect sense to assure the company’s long term future. After all, global competition began to intensify around that time, and it was his duty as CEO to position Volkswagen for success in that global environment.
But implicit in that strategy was a shift in purpose (or at least the danger of it) from one of making excellent cars to one of growth. Even if the growth was intended to drive scale cost economies so VW could effectively compete, it nevertheless shifted purpose to profit. To getting more oxygen.
The various investigations will determine whether Mr. Winterkorn is guilty of illegal behaviour, and if so, he should be justly dealt with. My contention though, is that whatever the outcome at Volkswagen, it should make us pause to reconsider the systemic pressures that drive even honest, responsible leaders to make disastrous decisions. Financial analysts serve a useful purpose of keeping management from complacency, by presenting us with ‘best case’ financial performance estimates for that company, against which we can compare actual results. But that useful function becomes dangerous when analysts ignore the real purpose of the business, which is not simply to make as much profit as possible (Peter Drucker contends that the sole purpose of any business is to create a customer). To be responsible, analysts must include corporate mission, and a long-term investment horizon in their reports. For a long time, this has not been the case; quarterly guidance has ruled the day.
It will be interesting to learn to what degree Mr. Winterkorn’s and senior management’s incentive packages were tied to the growth strategy. We should be learning by now that we live in a complex, interconnected ecosystem, where disruptions in any one segment (financial, political, social, environmental) have significant impact on all the others. In the end, we make all the rules and regulations. We can decide that ROI will have a broader definition than simply shareholder returns (after all, what exactly is the definition today of a shareholder?) We can set the rules to encourage and reinforce those CEOs who keep corporate mission in proper perspective, and do more than just live to breathe.
In it’s zeal to maximize short term profits, Volkswagen management has jeopardized the very existence of the company, threatened the livelihood of thousands of employees, and possibly even damaged the German economy, which in turn would impact the global economy. It’s time to learn from this and rethink the current capitalist system that we’ve allowed to evolve, (largely through undue and unethical influence of Wall Street in the U.S.) so that systemic pressures tempting good leaders to make foolhardy decisions are at best, eliminated, and at worst, significantly reduced.

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Game of Thrones: 5 Leadership Lessons

One of the most watched television series over the past 5 years has been The Game of Thrones. While aptly criticized for its inane, gratuitous use of sex and graphic violence, the plots are definitely intriguing, and any story of power struggles among seven kingdoms is bound to offer useful lessons of leadership. Here are five that resonated with me. (For those who have yet to see the series, a spoiler alert is in order.)
1. Actions speak louder than words – Although Jon Snow is a mere Steward of the Night’s Watch on The Wall, his actions during the attack of the Wildlings proved far more effective than the blustery words of acting Lord Commander Alliser, so much so that when the brotherhood held their elections after the battle, Snow was voted new Lord Commander. Alliser himself fought bravely during the battle, but Snow motivated, mobilized and directed the men to strategically fight off the attack, then led by example with courageous resolve.
Leaders are constantly scrutinized, and employees often remain silent about their loyalty and opinions. To talk a good game and construe silence as agreement and commitment is a risky strategy. Leadership is a relationship between followers and leaders, and credibility is built more through example than mere verbal communication. Authentic leaders walk their talk.
2. Surround yourself with (and listen to) those wiser than yourself -The young Queen Daenarys Targaryen is intelligent, ethical, and clear about her vision for ruling a better society, yet also aware of her youth and inexperience in the regal role. Her humility and wisdom result in surrounding herself with trustworthy and wise counsel (Jorah, Daario, Missandei, Hizdahr, Barristan), and there are several occasions when, upon listening to their arguments and advice, she courageously changes her original decision, to follow the wiser course of action. She does not need the idea to be hers.
The very traits, behaviours and characteristics that raise a person to a position of power and authority are often antithetical to those required to maximize results once there. Bold decisiveness and self-confidence make it natural and easy to rely on one’s own counsel. Yet history repeatedly shows that ‘none of us is smarter than all of us’. Effective leaders seek out diverse and conflicting opinions, and listen for hard truths rather than political or popular input. They constantly guard against hubris of others and of themselves, and make broadly informed, sound decisions.
3. Don’t judge the book… – Tyrion Lannister at first glance is a deeply wounded, cynical, drunken philanderer; to many the joke of the powerful Lannister family and ‘also ran’ of the court. As the series progresses, we see him surprise many in the court when appointed the King’s Hand: shrewd, political judgement, an honest sense of humour, a penchant for truth, compassion for the downtrodden and innocent, and even courage in battle. The wily, yet similar Lord Varys was perhaps the only one who looked past the book’s cover, and spotted the highly capable person beneath the facade.
There’s a saying that conflict is caused by those whose needs are not being met, or who feel they are not being heard, yet often we do not openly declare that. If dissonant, we can act out our dissatisfaction by stirring things up in the workplace. Intelligent leaders read the book cover but then look deeper into the pages. Sometimes the troublemakers are just that. Other times, once heard and understood, the troublemaker comes aboard, and can even turn into a champion of the cause who brings others aboard too. Good leaders mine deep to find the talent beneath the surface.
4. Shared visions trump singular ones – if one follows the logic of the plot, it’s difficult not to concede that Stannis Baratheon likely is the true claimant to the Iron Throne. He certainly believes it, and it becomes his obsessive vision to gain the throne by any means. This leads to iron-willed, ruthless behaviour, and in his unswerving ambition, he eventually loses men, brother, wife, daughter, and finally his own life. His attempts to form alliances were by threat, bribery or force. Never did he consider crafting a shared vision of the Seven Kingdoms with other stakeholders.
Because leaders tend to be prescient creatures, it is normal and easy to craft their own vision and forge ahead with good intent and strong will. But is that sufficient? Some of the most effective leaders in history achieved superior results by beginning with their vision, then vetting it through many camps and layers of stakeholders. They truly understand that radical and deep changes can only be achieved through the concerted effort of everyone whom the vision will affect. By inviting input from representatives of all who will be affected, great leaders create a comprehensive and encompassing shared vision that inspires and galvanizes all whose effort is required to achieve it.
5. Expect the unexpected – the rivalries of families and Kingdoms had been ongoing for centuries, and given the times and technology, competition had largely been the same: swords, spears, catapults, horses, armour. The paradigm was clear, and while strategies varied, those doing the planning knew more or less what to expect. That is, until Daenarys showed up with three dragons (which had not been around for a thousand years). This caused many leaders who, (other than trying to murder Daenarys as a child), did not see her as a major threat, to hastily re-evaluate their strategies in light of the new realities.
While the leaders in the Game of Thrones may be forgiven for overlooking the possibility of dragons entering the scene, the lesson is timeless: we cannot predict the future, and must therefore build agility and resilience so as to be able to quickly react to the inevitable surprises. In WWII, the dragon was nuclear weaponry. Recent corporate dragons (Apple, Uber, 3D printing) have already disrupted several industries, whose leaders were no doubt competently planning strategy under the old rules. The game is changing, and so too must expectations.
Will we ever learn?
There has been much praise and much criticism of Game of Thrones, but love it or hate it, there are valuable leadership lessons woven within. When one reviews history: the Civil War, both World Wars, global politics and nation-building, all of these leadership mores are recognizable; sometimes by their skilled application, and sadly, more often by their absence. The cost of ignoring them has been high. And of course they are equally applicable to the ‘battlefield’ of corporate competition, where the risks are less fatal, but the quality of society is nonetheless seriously impacted. Hopefully our political and corporate leaders will watch the series and take notes.

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Corporate Transformation and the Physics of Culture

“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” Albert Einstein
As a novice student of neuroscience and quantum physics, I’m constantly fascinated by new discoveries that seem to support what sages have maintained for millennia: that there are energy forces that create outcomes, and they are driven by thoughts and emotions: “Faith can move mountains” Mark 11:23; “Love conquers all” Virgil
For centuries, Newtonian science dispelled those notions, (perhaps rightfully so for the times), and focused our attention on only those facts provable by the scientific method. But as technology advanced, people like Einstein circled us back around to the earlier truths.
What does this have to do with corporate transformation, or a leader running a business? A lot. For the last 100 years, most research and attention has been devoted to the fundamentals of management. Statistical models drove marketing, economics, finance and production. Everything else was relegated to that “Soft Stuff” bin; dismissed as emotional fluff that had nothing to do with running a hard-nosed business. And even when trusted gurus like Tom Peters, and (justifiably) revered managers like Lou Gerstner cautioned us that “Wait, this soft stuff matters…a lot!” many still chose, and choose, to ignore it.
But new findings in neuroscience and quantum physics indicate that there are fields of energy that do in fact interact with not only other fields, but with those of individuals as well. Consultant Margaret Wheatley suggests “Many scientists now work with the concept of fields–invisible forces that occupy space and influence behavior. I have played with the notion that organizational vision and values act like fields, unseen but real forces that influence people’s behavior.” Leadership and the New Science, 1999. These fields constitute your organizational culture.
This physics of culture has huge ramifications for any leader struggling to effectively adapt their organization to the constant, rapid change of the world today. As Einstein instructs, you must “match the frequency of the reality you want.” Is your market changing every six months, while your organization is saddled with rigid bureaucracy and clogged decision pipelines? How does a culture of complacency and disengagement ‘match’ your desired reality of high agility, deep resilience, and proactive innovation?
Culture is energy. Walk into a Four Seasons hotel, a Nordstrom’s, or an Apple retail store, a Southwest Airlines counter. You’ll feel that energy. The frequency is high. Those companies are currently thriving. There is a strong match. They’re creating a desired reality.
Any leader striving to succeed must conduct an audit to determine the match between their ‘energy frequency’ (culture) and that of the reality they seek to create. Mission, vision, and strategy matter, and leaders are responsible for creating and implementing all three in genuine and meaningful ways. But that is just the beginning. Corporate transformation requires mastering the physics of culture. Culture drives successful implementation. If your vision calls for innovation yet your culture values and protects the status quo, the energies don’t match. No amount of strategizing, managing and controlling will remedy that imbalance.
Explore your organizational culture. Define it. Test to see if your senior leaders are aligned in their understanding and embracing of it. Then compare it to your stated vision. If the energy frequency doesn’t match that of your desired reality, at least you will now know where to start changing. “It can be no other way.”

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JPMorgan Chase Way off the Mark

Shareholders of JPMorgan Chase bank voted today to retain the joint office of CEO and Chairman, with Jamie Dimon remaining in the posts.
Many larger clients had triggered the debate over splitting the jobs, in the wake of the London Whale investment scandal that cost the bank some $6.2 billion in trading losses. The bank and Dimon had argued that letting Dimon keep both jobs was the most effective form of leadership.
Dimon and the bank are way off the mark.
In the short interview below, McKinsey & Company consultants speak with Harvard’s Gary Hamel, well known leadership professor and writer. Hamel lays out a concise and logical argument for how leadership must be redefined going forward if organizations are to gain the flexibility, agility, and resilience necessary for success. He submits that the traditional pyramidal organizational structure cannot sustain the speed, pressure and knowledge demands in a timely manner. He correctly notes that by the time (if at all) that the next idea, opportunity or threat reaches top management’s radar, it’s too late; the window has closed. In the case of Dimon, either he knew about the activities around the London Whale trade (but that’s a topic for another blog) or he didn’t, in which case either he’s negligent, or the job is too big for one person. It would be most interesting, in my view, to hear Dimon refute Hamel’s theory and defend the decision to keep CEO and Chairman role.
Perhaps most troubling is that even if Hamel has failed to perfectly describe the future of effective leadership structures, at the very least he is correct about the general direction in which it must move: syndicated versus consolidated. How can JPMorgan Chase be so far off the mark? Hubris and the narrowest definition of shareholder maximization; Dimon’s deep belief that he is smarter than anyone else. And while he may well be, in a one-to-one context, he isn’t smarter than all the best minds at JPM. It is disheartening to see monolith companies insist on clinging to leadership models past their prime, and doing so certainly doesn’t serve stakeholders efficiently. One thing is certain: should any investment bank decide to operate based upon Hamel’s model, Mr. Dimon and his bank will fall quickly behind.
http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/Organization/Leaders_everywhere_A_conversation_with_Gary_Hamel?cid=other-eml-alt-mip-mck-oth-1305

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Pope Francis I: Level 5 Leader?

The election last week of Pope Francis I sent the media scrambling to unearth available details of his past, sordid and otherwise, in an effort to build a character profile of the new Pope. Aside from the disputed issue of failing to protect two Jesuits from the violent Argentinian political regime in the 1970′s, the main conclusion is that he is a man of genuine humility.
This conclusion was supported by his actions during the pre- conclave, and post-election periods in Rome: staying in modest quarters, travelling by bus, collecting his own baggage from his hotel and paying his own bill. While cynics may claim that this merely could have been shrewdly effective and symbolic theater, further scrutiny reveals that it is in fact a consistent behaviour pattern of many years. It is said that in Buenos Aires he lived in a modest one-room apartment instead of the “palatial Archbishop’s mansion”, made his own bed, cooked his own meals, and spent a large percentage of his time in the slums working with the poor. Pope Francis it seems, when it comes to humility, is the real deal.
What does this have to do with a blog on business leadership? Watching this Pope reminded me of Stanford management guru Jim Collins’ best seller Good to Great. In it, he identifies Level 5 leaders as rare yet highest in achieving sustainable results. Specifically, they “embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” So far, it would appear that the Catholic Church has elected at worst, a leader with half (the tougher half to develop?) of the Level 5 pre-requisites; at best a master reformer for the organization.
Collins again:”Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated…are fanatically driven,infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results…display workmanlike diligence-more plow horse than show horse…are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the (organization) great, no matter how big or hard the decisions.”
While his record of church reform in Argentina and his work with the poor shows leadership authenticity and skill, those localized challenges pale in comparison to the ones currently and globally facing the Catholic Church: systemic, longstanding financial and child-abuse scandals, declining, disenfranchised membership, and perhaps most important, an entrenched, rigid and highly political Curia. The Church needs change, yet has been known for centuries as (and remains) the poster-child of institutional intransigence (albeit also the oldest continuously operating organization on the planet; they must be doing something right).
And so begins a case study in the making; one that leaders of all organizations in business, government and non-profit sectors might consider observing and learning from. The publicity surrounding the Vatican has highlighted the current problems and opportunities facing the church, and from his first few addresses, it appears that the new Pope clearly understands and holds strong opinions about them too. Whether he does indeed possess the professional will and “fanatical drive” to rattle and move that Vatican mountain remains to be seen, but his history to date would demonstrate that he is certainly not afraid to swim against the current, and to live out his strongly-held values.
Perhaps if he succeeds, it will force some broad reflection about Level 5 leadership. Many leaders at lower levels also possess professional will, and a results-oriented focus. It seems the humility factor is much more rare, and is perhaps the key factor in motivating employees, members, and all other stakeholders to embrace the values and vision of the organization, to commit intellectually and emotionally, to take ownership by placing the objectives of the organization ahead of their own. Difficult stuff; Level 5 for sure. If he succeeds, we all might do well to take a page out of his book on combining and developing the two powerful leadership behaviours.
So as the Pope starts off on this difficult journey, he can take comfort that he has already mastered the more difficult half of the Level 5 leader formula. I will watch with interest to see whether his will can withstand and dissolve the anticipated resistance, and restore the church to its original mission and faithful constituents. It’s a monumental task, and I wish him well; God bless and Godspeed.

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Now is the Time

Watching the U.S. debt ceiling debacle has left me feeling both angry and concerned about the behaviour of their leaders. But also globally, there are increasing signs that the leaders we have appointed are failing to deliver, and now is the time for us to speak up loudly and ensure they understand we expect different and better behaviour. Many of us welcome the efforts of citizens of the Arab Spring countries to change or send strong messages to their leadership. Yet we remain complacent at home about our own situation.
In a recent article in Leader to Leader magazine, writer Michelle Hunt states: “the world needs leaders with a purpose that transcends corporate selfishness, individual materialism, and seduction of power. We need leaders who understand the myriad connections both among and within individuals families, organizations, communities and the environment.”
I have resolved to make sure my local MPP candidate clearly understands what I believe is needed from him/her, and to vote only for the person who most closely embodies the attributes listed above. I invite you to do the same. Now is the time to insist on positive change for our society.

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