Sicko: Moore reveals his wider game-plan

June 30, 2007

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Michael Moore believes he has been thinking like a chess grandmaster in planning the impact of Sicko, his new health-care movie. But has he checkmated his political and cultural opponents in doing so?

In an interview with USA Today [Friday 22nd June, 2007] the controversial film-maker continued to plug his new movie, Sicko, which has already been widely pre-trailed. He describes how his earlier movies had failed to achieve his political goals.

“Did going to (former NRA president) Charlton Heston’s home reduce school shootings in this country? I don’t think so ..[ recalling a scene in Columbine] ..
“Did trying to get onto the 14th floor of General Motors (in Roger & Me) to see (chairman Roger Smith) convince GM to start making cars that people want to buy? No ..
“ Did Fahrenheit stop the re-election of George W. Bush?”
“So a lot of thought went into, ‘OK, I get it. It’s a game of chess, and so far I’ve been in checkmate.’ … I need to find a different way to get to where I want to go.”

As there’s only one checkmate per game ..

Strictly speaking, Moore means that he has been playing a whole series of chess-like battles through his movies. And that in Sicko he’s found a different way for him to win this particular game.

He went on to explain that his earlier films have not succeeded in winning people over to his side of the argument. A closer examination suggests that he believes specifically that the stunts in the films may have made people laugh, but did not win converts to his cause. The different way, is to retain much of his compelling style but to avoid demonizing individuals. This will, he believes make him, through the film a more potent political warrior.

It’s a point of view

He may have been able to put a clearer case under less pressured circumstances (he was interviewed while taking a break from a public meeting with a thousand wound-up health care workers). As stated, it’s a bit muddled and a bit megalomaniac. What sort of film might have ‘convinced GM to start making cars that people want to buy’? Or one that might reduce home shootings? Or change the course of a presidential election?

I’m inclined to argue against the idea that any film, however brilliant, can achieve such goals. That’s because I believe what I learned from the writings of the great Kurt Lewin who presented social systems as stabilized through a set of forces which tend to be mutually self-adjusting. And I believe in such a systemic view because it has been confirmed whenever I have found myself caught up actively or otherwise in systems going through change processes.
That’s not to say that thought leaders and their creative efforts can not play a part in great revolutionary changes. Tyrants are notoriously sensitive to the dangers of being made to look foolish, or even to look less than special. Charlie Chaplin in The Dictator didn’t defeat Hitler, but I share the view that humor can be part of a radical cultural move.

Or, if we stick to the chess metaphor

Michael Moore may well have been playing quite a successful series of games of chess. Only he has been playing against in more than two dimensions, and against more a range of powerful opponents. He is unlikely to checkmate them all. But he shows his resilience, and may indeed have worked up a better plan. By attacking a system not its agents, Sicko may leave the film-maker-cum-chess-warrior feeling not completely checkmated in the end-game.


The Postal Strike and the Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse

June 29, 2007

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The twenty-four hour postal strike in the UK is the type of ‘little local difficulty’ large enough to require an immediate response from a new political leader. Even with his formidable energy, Gordon Brown could do without confronting an industrial dispute so soon into his leadership. There are echoes of the Airbus conflicts that captured the attention of Nicholas Sarcozy in the first week of his Presidency.

Why strike? Why now?

The strike, which began at 3 am on Friday June 29th 2007, involved some 130,000 members of the Communication Workers Union who have issued the following statement

The CWU’s Negotiating Team met with the Royal Mail’s Chief Executive Adam Crozier, and his Senior Management Team yesterday. The CWU reiterated to Royal Mail that it was prepared to reach an agreement that would move forward both the Union and Royal Mail’s position … The CWU impressed upon the company that there was no possibility of Royal Mail management successfully transforming the business unless both parties could reach an agreement that galvanises the workforce too. During the course of the meeting the Union set out its position and expressed its genuine concern about Royal Mail’s business plan and how it would result in a spiral of decline for the company, and the workforce … The CWU reminded Royal Mail that the Union was not alone in severely criticising Royal Mail’s business plan. A recent all-party Select Committee criticised Royal Mail’s leadership for lacking vision.

Chief Executive Adam Crozier, responded by rehashing all of his previous statements and refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Union.

The strike on Friday 29th June 2007, will go ahead.

Technology and jobs

The old debate about technology and jobs continues. Innovation accompanies creative destruction, like Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse. Maybe ultimately the job losses are compensated elsewhere. Which is no consolation to threatened workers. The perceived grievances of Royal Mail workers are easy to identify. As with Airbus, competitive pressures have triggered plans to reduce costs which threaten jobs.

The Royal Mail leadership team

Royal Mail has a high profile leadership team within the UK business world. Chairman Allan Leighton has been persistently linked with stories of his intention to head a lucrative buy-out initiative. In an earlier post I noted:

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity, as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

Their styles remind me of an earlier high-profile double act, Lord King and Colin Marshall at British Airways. The pugnacious King had also been confronted with an ailing BA facing vigorous competition. Like Leighton, King presided over job cuts on a similar scale, and had serious internal morale issues and Union conflicts. Colin Marshall, like Adam Crozier, had a more urbane style.

Since his arrival, the Royal Mail has cut 30,000 jobs, shut thousands of post offices, and moved away from record annual losses that had reached £1bn. The various changes have been forced through against considerable opposition internally and externally.

The changes have not resolved the fundamental problems of the corporation which remains in dire financial circumstances. It recently announced that the gap in its pension funds would be tackled by ending the corporation’s final wage pension scheme, another unwelcome move and one described as unilateral bullying by its Union leaders.

Amazon and The Economist on-line

In preparing this post, I held off from ordering a book from that well-known e-business Amazon. It could wait. Co-incidentally, Amazon could not wait for a better deal from The Royal Mail, and has recently switched a lucrative contract away. If the management’s resolve needed stiffening, that would have done the trick.

Yesterday, those nice people from The Economist sent me an email. It apologized for any inconvenience caused by today’s postal strike, pointing out that I am eligible as a subscriber to access their on-line version, if I can’t wait for the delayed delivery through the Royal Mail.

Globalization as economic apocalypse

Royal Mail employees, like the rest of us, are facing an economic apocalypse. The current wisdom of the tribe is that we are seeing consequences of globalization. My examples illustrate some of the threats and opportunities cropping up, as the horsemen of the apocalypse gallop about, and technological changes sweep the countryside.

Card-carrying optimists hold to the view that the human spirit, creativity and morally-grounded leadership will help us through the crisis.


Prime Minister Brown – At last, at long last

June 28, 2007

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Tony Blair exits after a last Prime Minister’s question time. The house settled for a dignified and good-humored farewell. Rumors leak out of names in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, and of a new job for Tony Blair.

Today’s political comings and goings are recorded for posterity in infinite detail. The leadership transition is now beyond the control of any one person. The ritual kicks in. It is worth noting, as it is a relatively rare event. The essential features for a century or so is that the incoming Prime Minister is received by the Monarch, is invited to serve, and accepts, almost always without hesitation. Sometimes it is possible for this to be preceded by a visit from the outgoing PM to hand in the bunch of keys and Rent Book for No 10 Downing Street.

Goings on at The Palace

In today’s ritual, the ceremony unfolds with TB being driven to Buckingham Palace in the Prime Ministerial vehicle, spending an hour with the Queen, and leaving as ex- Prime Minister Blair, in a more modest car. Conversely, Gordon arrives in a humble People Carrier, meets the Queen, does the business, and returns in the swanky Prime Ministerial car and with the keys and rent book for No 10.

The traditional speech on the steps of No 10. Slightly creepy because the area is mostly clear of people for security reasons. Prime Minister Brown predictably speaks of ‘doing his utmost’ (a translation of a school motto?).

The last and first leaks?

Possibly the last leak of the Blair administration. The rumor was right. Before the day is out, Tony Blair is to resign his Parliamentary seat and take up a job as special envoy to The Middle East. His mandate is particularly to assist in a resolution to the Palestinian issue, on behalf of the UN, EU, America and Russia.

Seems Tony mentioned it in a telephone conversation to his old friend Bertie Ahern. Bertie blabs to the press. These are two men who kept schtum with many a secret during years of delicate negotiations over the future of Northern Ireland. But this is what happens when demob-happiness kicks in.

The new manager draws up his team sheet

Meanwhile, in the quiet of his new manager’s office, Gordon completes the names on his team sheet. Even without Bertie’s help, more rumors trickle out. The late-night editions of tomorrow’s papers speak confidently of some names and appointments.

There have been more rumors of surprises on the team-sheet. We will have to wait just a little longer for the names, and the positions in which they have been selected to play.

A new job for Alan?

An obvious rumor. Alan Johnson will have a nice consolation prize, after losing out to Harriet Harman in the deputy leadership battle. a more surprising rumor is of a new job for Sir Alan Sugar in revitalizing British Business Leadership. Possibly in Business Education. Now that will offer some scope in future posts on leaders we deserve.


The Apprentice

June 27, 2007

350px-tovenaarsleerling_s_barth.pngMy curmudgeonly view of The Apprentice is largely focused on the view that it presents a distorted and undesirable role model for would-be business leaders. However, it can be argued that the series exposes dubious business practices, and that subsequent debate can be healthy.

Why should the owner of a large corporation risk public ridicule while seeking high-profile visibility for himself? In the news at the moment has been Sir Alan Sugar, and his BBC TV show The Apprentice. That other knight, Sir Richard Branson, has an even longer tradition of self-publicity, and would probably also be tempted into TV stardom given the opportunity.

One difference may be that Sir Richard’s publicity stunts have, mostly, been associated with his beloved Virgin Brand. By and large, the restlessly innovative brand and the image of RB seem pretty compatible.

So what about Sir Alan and his business interests? He has stated that he is doing the show because he enjoys it, and because he thinks it worthwhile to communicate the excitement of the world of business.

I note this without recalling the original source, but I can’t recall that he says he is taking part because it’s good for his business interests. On the other hand, it’s a pretty safe bet he doesn’t consider it to be harming his commerical net value.

What’s happened to Amstrad?

AS a matter of record, as Sir Alan’s public visibility has grown, so has the share value of Amstrad. Significantly. Over six times their quoted value in early 2002.

So Sir Alan’s show has helped Amstrad?

Well … it’s not as clear-cut as all that. A few years ago in 2002, the shares had plummeted to a price of 20p, suggesting that the company was a near basket-case.

At present, financial analysts see Amstrad’s main business is in the highly competitive one of selling set-top TV boxes. There is no evidence of great growth there. The vitality and entrepreneurial flair brought to the company in its early days by Alan Sugar seems have disappeared. My scanning of the financial press suggests that the company’s future prospects are not rated highly. [This is a personal view, and not, repeat not advice from a successful share-tipster.]

As part of a strategic response to corporate difficulties, the TV exposure hasn’t worked.

Is The Apprentice a good showcase for business?

Sir Alan says so. The BBC have commissioned another two series, and have increasingly talked-up the status even of those would-be apprentices ejected from the house (I meant, those fired from the programme). As each is evicted (sorry, ‘fired’) he or she has another brief period of celebrity.

By and large a consensus seems to be emerging beyond the vested interests of the BBC that The Apprentice throws as much light on Business as earlier and better-scripted series such as Steptoe and Son, Are You being Served, and Only Fools and Horses.

One article highlighted some undesirable elements if the show was intended to mirror business life.

“I think I would be very uncomfortable being Sir Alan Sugar’s solicitor now,” says Nicholas Lakeland at London law firm Silverman Sherliker. “I wouldn’t say his approach is consistent with what employment lawyers would advise.”

Although at interview you are only protected against discrimination after a year at an office, you can claim constructive dismissal, and where bullying is really bad, protection from harassment. If Sir Alan behaves in his company like he does on TV, warns Lakeland, he could find himself in hot water.

Bullying can prove very expensive for businesses. Last year Deutsche Bank had to shell out £800,000 to workplace bullying victim Helen Green. In 2003 Steven Horkulak was awarded nearly £1m in damages by the courts after months of abuse by his boss, president of brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald International. Employers be warned.

My case is, that the omnipotent boss as acted out by Sir Alan Sugar in The Apprentice, is a poor role model for much of today’s business. He illustrates many of the characteristics that have helped him achieve success for a self-made multi-millionaire. The vital ingredients of determination, resourcefulness, energy, single-mindedness are not so obvious as a kind of unthinking and gratuitous bullying. The style is by no means universal among successful business leaders. I have suggested elsewhere that such tyrannical behaviors are most often found concentrated certain industries including the media.

These objections have been raised elsewhere.

Steve Carter, head of recruitment firm Nigel Lynn, condemns the unrealistic “brutality” of the show’s recruitment process. “The idea that people should set about stabbing each other in the back to succeed is not good business,” he says.

To that I would add another misgiving. The episodes are followed by tired radio productions which remind me particularly forceably of the culture of Celebrity Big Brother.

The Case for the Defence

I have been inclined to rant a bit about a programme which I have trouble watching for more than a few minutes. So let me have a go at defending The Apprentice. It has revealed one example of muscular leadership. Wannabe leaders can discuss what they have seen. In pubs and workplaces this is already producing discussion. Maybe this in turn will allow people to figure out ways of coping when they come under fire from a bullying boss. Even better, some bosses may perhaps review their own leadership behaviors towards employees, and consider alternative patterns.


Gordon and Harriet take the floor

June 26, 2007

150px-gordon_brown_imf.jpgharriet-harman.jpgAt a special Party conference in Manchester, Gordon Brown becomes leader of the labour party, a few days before assuming the post of Prime Minister. A minor shock follows as Harriet Harman unexpectedly wins a closely- contested contest for deputy Leader, and Brown announces that she is also to become the Party’s chairperson

Sunday June 24th 2007

Tony Blair begins his final week as Leader of the Labour Party and as Prime Minister. Today Gordon takes over in the former role, and will acquire the greater prize on Wednesday.

The transition was never as smooth as was desired, but neither was it as difficult as it might have been. The opposition parties may still be reflecting on opportunities lost. Opinion Polls show that the long-established lead by the Conservatives over Labour has diminished, and may even have been wiped out.

From a great distance, darkly

I caught a glimpse of the final twists in the drama from a hotel room in Munich. A last minute break dot com had sold us on a quick visit to a city now emerging with some dignity from its darkest historical period.

The distance had some benefit. I could not take soundings of what the pundits were saying and writing, and had to make up my mind on the occasion, and its implications.

The first shock

Why was the camera switching from a lip-lickingly happy Brown to a gently glowing Harriet Harman? Got it. She must have won the election as deputy leader of the party. This turned out to be the case. This is thanks to the complicated transferrable vote process through which she just edged out the bookies’ favorite, Alan Johnson. Gordon invites her to join him centre stage.

The shock was his announcement that the post of deputy leader would be combined with that of party chair(person). Harriet scoops the jackpot (if you can call it that).

Harriet? I tried to remember how she had fared in the seven weeks of campaigning. An outsider with the bookies. Nothing particular in the curious Newsnight hustings with the six candidates. On the other hand, I had also noted her vivid metaphor, likening herself to Radio Two to Gordon Brown’s Radio Four, light and serious broadcasters respectively.

Gordon’s Speech

The speech will be analysed to death. Overall first impression: The about-to-be Prime Minister has produced a rather rich dish. It seems to have been condensed into its eventual format, in contrast to Tony Blair’s recent offerings, which seem to have been whipped up from rather lighter ingredients.

‘I know a lot of you [in and beyond the Party faithful] don’t trust me, yet’ he appeared to be saying ‘but I’m going to show you why that will change’. He spoke of winning hearts and minds. Also of The Health Service, The Middle East, Poverty, and Social Responsibility. The social commitment expressed with a rather muted delivery reminded me of grainy recordings of an earlier Prime Minster, Clement Atlee, captured sixty years earlier.

Coming down to earth

The flight to Manchester was unusually bumpy. On approach, we could glimpse newly-created finger lakes through grizzly grey clouds. There’s a bit of catching-up to do.

On the ground

Non-stop news summary from taxi-driver confirms that there has been very bad flooding but your house will be OK because the worse is over there in Yorkshire. He follows the official taxi-driver Union view that the ceaseless political news is even worse than the flooding and who ever gets elected it won’t make any difference and so on. And no one was doing anything about immigration. I said that if he was older he would be a grumpy old man. He replied that he was only grumpy in his cab, but he was in his cab ten or twelve hours every day. And the sort of people he had to deal with would make the Pope grumpy.

Susan cleverly moves the discussion on, suspecting she would have to endure a debate on whether being Pope was more likely to make you grumpy than being a taxi-driver.


Boycott backs Pietersen

June 20, 2007

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Update [June 2008]

Geoffrey Boycott backed Kevin Pietersen to replace Michael Vaughan as one-day Captain of England. His prediction was wrong. But one captain later, Kevin Pietersen was appointed to the job.

Original post:

Geoffrey Boycott backs Kevin Pietersen to replace Michael Vaughan as next captain of England’s one day cricket team. Most commentators are backing the steadier Paul Collingwood. Boycott was a brilliant opening bat, and now is a trenchant and insightful commentator. He was also arguably the worse cricket captain of England in modern times. What can we make of his judgement in this case?

According to Jung

One stream of leadership research has drawn on the idea of the shadow self. It’s one of those interesting concepts which can be traced to Carl Gustav Jung.

Rebeca Eigen summarises a complex concept nicely:

Projection is an unconscious psychological mechanism. We all project onto other people parts of ourselves that we disown, that we deny. We will usually not identify with the projected quality or characteristic at all. It’s them. It’s not us … Jung believed that whatever we are highly identified with in our character, the opposite extreme will be in our unconscious. He called this the law of opposites. So unconsciously we will attract the parts of us that we actually badly need.

Gofffrey’s dominant style

Boycott is known as a batting obsessive, dour, dogged, and with a style perhaps reflecting his dogged personality. So we might expect touches of the shadow side. A general loathing of more elegant and gifted colleagues, but sometimes wistfully emulating them. He has worked at a carefully cultivated and jaunty persona and dress for his numerous TV appearances.

Now he appears to be backing Pietersen, which I suggest is a shadow-self character, as the new one-day cricket captain for England.

Kevin

Kevin Pietersen would undoubtedly play out Geoffrey’s shadow self as a cricketer. List some descriptors that would capture Petersen’s style and flamboyant, enthusiastic, bold-minded and big-hitting come to mind.

He has been considered to have one characteristic shared with Boycott. He is not particularly noted as a team player.

Geoffrey’s judgement

Paul Collinwood, A more team-minded player than Boycott or Pietersen, has been widely tipped as the next captain. Ironically, he appears to be a safe pair of hands both literally and metaphorically. Vaughan was safe pair of hands metaphorically but a bit less so in the field of play…

Collingwood rarely throws his wicket away, and it that sense is closer to Boycott than to Pietersen.

Geoffrey’s judgement of the technicalities of batting is nearly matchless. He is also widely regarded as an excellent business-man. Which may be a clue to his advocacy of Pietersen.

It may be that Geoffrey admires Kevin for exhibiting all the suppressed aspects of his own cricketing style.

Or, perish the thought …

Or might there be something more mutually beneficial going on? Kevin’s website at present has the cover of his new book prominently displayed. With a glowing endorsement from, yes, you’ve guessed it, one Geoffrey Boycott.

Sorry Geoff

Boycott’s call for more flair went unnoticed. Collingwood was appointed. According to BBC Sport, David Graveney, chairman of selectors announced that

“The selectors believe that Paul Collingwood’s experience and performances in the one-day game make him the ideal candidate to lead the side”

Collingwood had told BBC Sport before the announcement: “I’ve not had much captaincy experience. I would have to learn very quickly.”

But the 31-year-old insisted the split captaincy – Vaughan will continue to lead the Test side – will work for England under the guidance of coach Peter Moores.


No news is good news in Alliance leadership change

June 17, 2007

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Alliance and Leicester make a smooth leadership transition. Insider David Bennett will replace Richard Pym as CEO next month. The move is accompanied by good profit forecasts. The absence of turbulence suggests that the company is under no pressure to signal any change of strategic direction.

The Company makes a leadership announcement

David Bennett, Group Finance Director of Alliance & Leicester plc, will become the company’s Group Chief Executive with effect from 27 July 2007. This follows the announcement in February that Richard Pym, Group Chief Executive, had asked the Board to consider his successor, resulting in an extensive search process which considered a range of internal and external candidates.

[Press Release, 13th JUne 2007]

The transition in leadership checks all the boxes for a company that is progressing nicely. No muscular interventions from stakeholders. Mr Pym, after five years at the helm announced as early as February that he was intending to stand down, after leading the bank for five years. David Bennett had scored considerable brownie points internally last year through his efforts which was seen as thwarting a possible takeover bid from Credit Agricole.

Compare this to the difficulties that the Government had in achieving the transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Or compare it to the difficulties experienced by companies when a change of leader was forced on them by unwelcome pressures sometimes from outside the company, sometime from inside.

Not without problems

We should not assume that A&L are blessed with a completely calm business environment. The BBC has been following news of the bank’s interest charges. Like other high-street lenders, it has had its share of adverse publicity.

The Alliance & Leicester (A&L) bank has apologized for a letter sent to customers who are trying to reclaim overdraft charges ….In February, the Financial Ombudsman Service criticized the A&L for closing the accounts of some customers who were suing the group for excessive overdraft charges ..

Another signal of robust health?

There are times when bad news can be read as good news. The rumbling stories of the nasty banks bullying their helpless customers have the effect of putting the institutions under the further scrutiny of financial journalists. Any evidence that a bank is in deeper trouble is likely to be revealed. So, to this outsider, A&L seem in good shape.

Boxes to tick

The available evidence in this case suggests a little check-list for an orderly transition of power from one leader to the next. The list has been shaped with private sector organizations in mind:

Outgoing leader makes surprise-free announcement of intention to depart
Announcement of internal successor is surprise-free
No evidence of harmful board-room battles
Profit forecasts in interim period are satisfactory
Media coverage fails reveal deeper problems (extra weight if there is a potential ‘bad news) story

Investor health warning

The check-list seems a useful starting point for evaluating a company’s transition from one leader to the next. With a little more research, it could turn into a nice indicator of leadership transition. This is one indicator of a company’s financial prospects for the future. Which might just be factored in to a decision to buy or hold shares.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that investing to beat the market requires faith in more than a single indicator of corporate health. External ratings present a picture of a solid company with risks mainly around a major deterioration in the UK housing market. Less likely for the Alliance are risks associated with disruptive corporate innovation associated with change of strategy.