Judgment and Jack

31 March 2016

Remember judgment? It still appears in the dictionary (in my Oxford: “1 the critical faculty, discernment… 2 good sense”). Judgment used to be a key to managing effectively, even if hidden in the dark recesses of the human brain. And then along came measurement, in the dazzling light. It was a good idea, so long as it informed judgment. Too frequently, however, it replaced judgment.

In 1981, the Business Roundtable, a grouping of the chief executives of America’s leading companies, issued their “Statement on Corporate Responsibility.”

The shareholder must receive a good return but the legitimate concerns of other constituencies (customers, employees, communities, suppliers and society at large) also must have the appropriate attention. . . . [Leading managers] believe that enlightened consideration … will best serve the interest of [the] shareholders. (quoted in Beyond Selfishness; statement since removed from www.businessroundtable.org)

In 1997, the Business Roundtable issued another statement, entitled “Statement of Corporate Governance.” This one, about “Shareholder Value”, reversed the previous one, claiming that the paramount duty of management and boards of directors is to the corporations’ stockholders. It explained:

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 criteria for resolving conflicts between the interest of stockholders and of other stakeholders or among different groups of stakeholders. (www.businessroundtable.org)

No criteria indeed—except judgment! Somehow, between 1981 and 1997, America’s most prominent CEOs lost their capacity for judgment. If you want to understand what has been behind the problems of the American economy since then, here you have it, right from the horses’ mouths. (See mintzberg.org/enterprise.)

In 2009, Jack Welch, America’s superstar CEO (of General Electric, from 1981-2001), declared famously that “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.” But wait a minute Jack: you were a member of the Roundtable that issued that 1997 statement. In fact I have been told that you championed it (although this I cannot confirm, and you are presumably not telling).1

In any event, thank you Jack for your dumbest statement--after the damage was done, and continues to be done. Thank you on behalf of all the employees who were either “downsized” or shifted to lower wages, in the name of “productivity” (and so helped to bring on Donald Trump). Thank you on behalf of all the customers who have had to put up with appalling services and lousy products at higher prices since that 1997 statement. Thank you on behalf of all the decent companies that were destroyed so that a few CEOs could run off with “shareholder value.”

Where has all the judgment gone?

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here.

1 Three years later, in 2012, the Business Roundtable issued this third, lame statement: “[I]t is the responsibility of the corporation to deal with its employees, customers, suppliers, and other constituencies in a fair and equitable manner and to  exemplify the highest standards of corporate citizenship.”