Blog: Reframing

Round and Round goes the Business Roundtable

16 November 2019

Recently, with much fanfare, the Business Roundtable—the association of CEOs of major American companies—discovered stakeholders beyond shareholders. Or, at least, rediscovered them, again. For this roundtable, what goes around really does come around. Here is an excerpt from each of its four proclamations over the years. Together, they are telling.

This year, The Purpose of a Corporation avowed that “While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.”  

In 2012, the Principles of Corporate Governance avowed that “it is the responsibility of the corporation to deal with its employees, customers, suppliers, and other constituencies in a fair and equitable manner…”1

Recently, with much fanfare, the Business Roundtable—the association of CEOs of major American companies—discovered stakeholders beyond shareholders. Or, at least, rediscovered them, again. For this roundtable, what goes around really does come around. Here is an excerpt from each of its four proclamations over the years. Together, they are telling.

This year, The Purpose of a Corporation avowed that “While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.”  

In 2012, the Principles of Corporate Governance avowed that “it is the responsibility of the corporation to deal with its employees, customers, suppliers, and other constituencies in a fair and equitable manner…”1

In contrast, the 1997 Statement of Corporate Governance declared: “The notion that the board must somehow balance the interests of stockholders against the interests of other stakeholders fundamentally misconstrues the role of directors. It is, moreover, an unworkable notion because it would leave the board with no criterion for resolving conflicts between interests of stockholders and of other stakeholders or among different groups of stakeholders.”

Coming back around to 1981, the Statement on Corporate Responsibility avowed that “Balancing the shareholder’s expectations of maximum return against other priorities is one of the fundamental problems confronting corporate management. …giving enlightened consideration to balancing the legitimate claims of all its constituents, a corporation will best serve the interest of the shareholders.”

If the CEOs were right in 1981, why did they go wrong in 1997? And if they reversed that wrong in 2012, why do they have to repeat that reversal now? The abuses of Shareholder Value did not exactly diminish in the last seven years, so why should we take the latest proclamation any more seriously?

Most telling is the claim in 1997 about having no criterion for resolving conflicts among different stakeholders. How about judgment? Did the CEOs of America lose their judgment in 1997? Jack Welch apparently did. I have been told that this renowned CEO of GE—no longer quite so renowned with his company’s subsequent performance—championed that 1997 statement. Then in 2009, he came around, declaring Shareholder Value to be the “the dumbest idea in the world.” Whoops, looks like he made a little mistake in 1997. Sorry about that!

Will the CEOs of America regain that judgment now, so that their stakeholders will get a fair shake this time around? We had the words in 2012; will we get the actions now?

Here’s an idea for action: Reserve half the seats on the board of American corporations for elected representatives of the workers. No, I have not lost my mind. I am simply stating what Germany did in 1976:  By law, employee representatives have been filing 10 of the 20 board memberships in companies of more than 2000 people. The German economy has hardly been suffering ever since.

If the CEOs of corporate America don’t like this idea, here’s another: Get rid of executive compensation schemes and quarterly reports that drive their attention toward short-run gains in the stock price, so often at the expense of worker security. And another:  Stop lobbying for tax changes that favor corporate shareholders over other people in society. And, while you are at it, support a living minimum wage for workers. How about ending the lobbying that has being doing so much damage to American democracy? The possibilities are endless…for leaders who deserve that label.

These days, words go round and round while behaviors carry on. Being bombarded with proclamations and so much else, we lose memory, alongside judgment. The CEOs of corporate America now have the opportunity to come around finally: put their actions where their mouthpiece is.

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. For my own record on this, please see "Who should control the corporation?” (1984: 517-645; book out of print but available as a pdf free download)

Quoted in “Why Corporate Social Responsibility isn’t a piece of cake”, but removed from the Business Roundtable site.

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Can a loose cannon have a strategy?

30 April 2018

So…can a loose cannon have a strategy? Sure, once we realize that we use the word strategy in a way that we never define it.

Strategy may be defined by intention, but it has to be realized in action.  An intended strategy looks forward, as some sort of plan or vision into the future—whether or not it will be realized. A realized strategy looks back, to some existing pattern in action, namely consistency in behavior—whether or not it was intended.

So…can a loose cannon have a strategy? Sure, once we realize that we use the word strategy in a way that we never define it.

Strategy may be defined by intention, but it has to be realized in action.  An intended strategy looks forward, as some sort of plan or vision into the future—whether or not it will be realized. A realized strategy looks back, to some existing pattern in action, namely consistency in behavior—whether or not it was intended.

How about Donald Trump? With regard to migrants and refugees, Muslim and Mexican, he has certainly had strategy, intended as well as partly realized: keep them out and get them out. In other words, his actions have been consistent with his stated intentions: With regard to much else, however, by the dictionary definition of strategy, Trump has been a loose cannon, shooting off his mouth in all directions, frequently contradicting, not only reason, but also himself. Where’s the strategy in that?

As for realized strategy, a host of Trump’s actions speak louder than his words, and differently, in fact rather consistently. Consider the following ones: picking fights with established allies while cozying up to autocrats; challenging existing trade agreements and long-standing alliances; repeatedly attacking the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies; emasculating the Department of State by leaving so many posts unfilled while proposing drastic reductions in its budget, alongside that of other major departments; and championing tax cuts that could paralyze the government and wreak havoc in the society.

Pattern may be in the eyes of the beholder, but it is tough not to behold this one, however outrageous it may seem: Donald Trump appears to be taking down the government of the United States of America. This is not your usual neo-con agenda of less government; it looks to be a concerted attack on the American state itself. 



Why would the president of the United States do such a thing? In his own terms, what’s in it for Donald Trump? Maybe more to the point, what’s in store for Donald Trump if he does not do this? To answer these questions, please understand that realized strategy need not be driven by an actor’s own intentions; it can be driven by the force of circumstance, even by the intentions of some other person able to exercise power over that actor.

Who might be able to do that? The answer seems evident enough. Were Vladimir Putin president of the United States, could he be doing any better for Russia? “Trade wars are good” said Donald Trump. Sure, for Putin’s Russia. It looks like Donald Trump’s realized strategy is executing Vladimir Putin’s intended strategy.

On the other side of this coin, the Mueller Inquiry has indicated that the Russians were determined to see Donald Trump elected. But why would they want a loose cannon in the White House, such an obvious threat to their security? Because, in Putin’s pocket, Trump has not been a loose cannon at all, but a straight shooter—consistently in the direction of Russian interests. (Has his recent rash of actions in the Ukraine, Syria, and the sending home of Russian diplomates changed that? Coming suddenly and all together, they look suspicious: a smokescreen to obscure his real agenda?)

What might Putin have on Trump? Some video shot in a hotel room? Undisclosed evidence of Russian collusion in the Trump election? More likely, the capacity to call in loans that would bankrupt Trump’s businesses. Regardless of the reason, what matters is Trump’s behavior. What matters more is the threat this poses to the security of all of us.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. Following on this, I am preparing an article entitled “Donald Trump is not the problem.”

About this business of government, Mr. President

5 April 2017

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

Business in its place is essential, just as is government in its place, which is not all over business. Now, however, thanks to you and your cabinet, business need no longer just lobby government to get its way; it is government. You were elected to challenge the establishment; will the executives who came into your cabinet from ExxonMobile and Goldman Sachs do that? They are the establishment: that other, more powerful business establishment that has now displaced the weaker political establishment.

This is an old problem now being carried to a new extreme. In the early days of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” Instead, later in that century the U.S. Supreme Court recognised corporations as “persons” in the law. Not long after that, in the new century, President Teddy Roosevelt was railing about the power of corporate trusts in American society, and in the 1960s President Dwight David Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” Nevertheless, in 2010 the Supreme Court gave those corporate persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. When “free enterprise” in an economy becomes the freedom of enterprises as persons in a society, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, government of the real people, by the real people, for the real people perishes from the earth.

Should government even be run like a business, let alone by businesspeople? No more than that business should be run like a government, by civil servants. As you well know, when an entrepreneur says “Jump”, the response is “How high sir?” You are now finding out what happens when a U.S. president says “Jump”. So far, so bad. Governments are relentlessly subjected to a plethora of pressures that many businesses, especially entrepreneurial ones like your own, cannot easily understand.

Business has a convenient bottom line, called profit, which can easily be measured. What’s the bottom line in government, say for terrorism? (Countries listed? Immigrants deported? Walls built?) What’s the bottom line for climate change? (Do you really believe it is jobs created?)

Running government like a business has been tried again and again, only to fail again and again. You must remember the debacle in New Orleans when Homeland Security was run by a businessman…of sorts. How about when George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Army promised to bring in “sound business practice”? He came from Enron, just before its spectacular collapse.

In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced PPBS (Planning-Programming-Budgeting System) to run government like a business. The obsessive measuring led to the infamous body counts of the Vietnam War. That bottom line was about as low as it can get. Then in the 1980s came the “New Public Management”, a euphemism for old corporate practices: isolate activities, put a manager in charge of each, and hold him or her responsible for the measurable results. That might work for the state lottery, but how about foreign relations or education, let alone, dare I mention it, health care? And now, at your request, your own son-in-law heads yet another effort to run government like a business. Back he comes with that old buzzword of citizens as “customers.” (Al Gore was using this misguided metaphor when he was vice-president.) You know what? I am not a mere customer of my government, thank you, as if I buy services at arm’s length. I am an engaged citizen of my country.

The place of business is to supply us with goods and services; that of government, aside from protecting us from threats, is to help keep our marketplaces competitive and responsible. Do you really believe that recent American governments have been overdoing this job, let alone even doing it?

I have a little book for you, Mr. President, called Rebalancing Society. It contends that a healthy society balances the power of respected governments in the public sector with responsible businesses in the private sector and robust communities in what I call the plural sector (“civil society”). The most democratic nations in the world today function closest to such balance, including ours in Canada and those in Scandinavia, likewise your own when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the community “associations” that helped to maintain democracy in early America. Indeed, during the decades following World War Two, the U.S. was far better balanced, as it experienced striking prosperity and development—economic as well as social―despite high taxes and generous welfare programs. Now, however, the country has lost that balance, and needs the plural sector to offset the fruitless swinging back and forth between left and right—government interventions by the public sector and market forces in the private sector.

Think back to the Berlin Wall, Mr. President. That wall fell on our Western democracies, because we misunderstood what brought it down. The pundits of the West claimed that capitalism had triumphed. Not at all. Balance had triumphed.  While the communist states of Eastern Europe were utterly out of balance, on the side of their public sectors, the successful countries of the West retained a relative balance across the three sectors.

But with this misunderstanding, capitalism has been triumphing since the fall of that wall, and throwing America and many other countries out of balance the other way, in favor of their private sectors. Look around, Mr. President, at income disparities, climate change exacerbated by excessive consumption, and the unregulated forces of globalization running rampant around the globe. That is why we have seen votes like Brexit and your own, by distraught people unsure which way to turn, except against the “establishment”.

When enough people realize what has been going on, if not you, then a subsequent president, will have to restore the balance that made America great in the first place.

Sincerely

Henry Mintzberg
Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. For elaboration of these arguments, please see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. Also my Harvard Business Review article “Managing Government, Governing Management”. 

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