Destructive aspiration

For CEO Hermelin, the noisy arrival of Danon at Capgemini must be awkward.

by Patience Wheatcroft, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Some people cannot hide their ambition. When BT announced that Pierre Danon, head of its retail division, was leaving for Capgemini, that organisation's chief executive, Paul Hermelin, was forced into a rebuttal that he would shortly be leaving. So naked has been Danon's desire for the top job that the popular assumption was that he must be about to fulfil it.

No matter that Danon's new job is significantly better paid, nor that it is in Paris, where his wife works, or that it is a truly international business. The immediate reaction to his appointment as chief operating officer was that he must have been assured that the chief executive's role would be his before long.

Hermelin tried to stamp out that theory, but the fact that Capgemini's share price was only just clambering back from all-time lows in October did not add credibility to his case. He insists Danon is to be an important part of his turnaround team, but with investors feeling restive, he would have reason to be nervous about his future colleague's ambitions.

From a journalist's point of view, Danon would be wonderful chief executive material. He is happy to heighten his profile by giving affable interviews and speaking his mind, rather than merely reiterating the latest corporate statement. More recently - presumably, only after he had secured his new job - he has publicly taken issue with BT's strategy. The company preferred to view exchanges between Danon and his superiors as healthy dialogue, but to observers it seemed more like serious disagreement.

Most companies experience boardroom discord over strategy, but they don't want to see it spilling into the public domain. Internal debate is healthy, but if a company cannot present a united front to investors, they are unlikely to feel confident about its prospects. In corporate life, the rules of cabinet government apply. David Blunkett seems to have felt that those rules did not apply to him, when he savaged his Government colleagues in interviews with his biographer. But it's now apparent that there are many other rules by which he does not feel bound.

Directors who are deeply unhappy with a company's direction have the options of alerting investors privately (which hardly ever happens); noisily resigning (another rarity); or quietly resigning. If they don't feel strongly enough to follow any of these routes, then, like cabinet members, they must be seen to back all company decisions. Suspicions that an individual may not be prepared to play that game could prove very career-limiting.

It will be interesting to see whether Danon tows the Hermelin line. He told one interviewer that he found his time at BT frustrating because he was in charge of only a third of the business, but it would be different at Capgemini because 'I will have control of the whole operation'.

One wonders whether the current CEO shares this interpretation of the role of chief operating officer.

When BT needed a new chief exec, some thought Danon, who had been there 18 months, was in line for the promotion, although he denies this. Instead of appointing the chatty Frenchman, Sir Christopher Bland opted for a quiet and cerebral Dutchman, Ben Verwaayen. Between them, they have succeeded in restoring some order after the inglorious reign of Sir Iain Vallance and Sir Peter Bonfield.

The antithesis of the flamboyant Danon, the quiet, bespectacled Verwaayen is not the sort to have ever publicly proclaimed his ambitions to be a corporate titan. To be so set on elevation can lead people into perilous territory in pursuit of their dream job. Gerald Corbett was group finance director of drinks company Grand Metropolitan in 1997, but, like many finance directors, he felt he should be running a business.

The railways, however, had little in common with GrandMet. Corbett had a torrid time at Railtrack, and it did not end when he left. The threatened criminal charges against him over the Hatfield rail crash were eventually dropped, and now he is building a portfolio of directorships with the rather less than glamorous chairmanship of Woolworths at its core.

The story of Keith Oates, another ambitious finance director determined on advancement, shows that those who stand most chance of winning the top job demonstrate their abilities rather than their desires.

Five years ago, Oates let it be known that he wanted to be the next CEO of Marks & Spencer. It is now apparent that all sorts of problems were building within the group, but the tussle that ensued after Oates' candidature became known destabilised the business. In the end, it did little for his own career: he was shown the door at Baker Street and never achieved the role he sought.

In a rare example of someone's wish for a certain top job becoming true, Stuart Rose now has the position that Oates coveted. He might now, though, be finding it less of a glittering prize than he thought.

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