EDITORIAL: Shafts of sunlight in an overcast year

EDITORIAL: Shafts of sunlight in an overcast year - As we come to the end of a tricky 12 months, most British managers will feel they've experienced far more enjoyable years than 2002. Never mind the general economic climate - which maintains a perpetuall

by MATTHEW GWYTHER, Editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As we come to the end of a tricky 12 months, most British managers will feel they've experienced far more enjoyable years than 2002. Never mind the general economic climate - which maintains a perpetually cool, damp greyness - it's the self-esteem many now have trouble with. As a cadre, the UK's managers have taken a reputational battering from all sides in the past year and are probably feeling more than usually unloved at the moment.

The first morale-sapper was the notorious Radio Four Today programme poll of Britain's most - and least - respected professions, which put manager 65th, 40 places below road sweeper and 60 below paramedic.

('Company director' came 84th and there were only 92 categories.)

Then the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, further reminded them of their shortcomings by saying that while 'the best British managers are among the best in the world ... the average manager is lagging well behind their international competitors'. She has now put Michael Porter of Harvard Business School on the case with pounds 50,000 to spend on his research.

In some ways, however, the most insidious slur on the manager's reputation has also come from the BBC. This year's most compelling management icon has, of course, been David Brent, Ricky Gervais' grotesque creation in the television series The Office. Brent is such an awful vision of gaucheness, arrogance and incompetence born of utter mediocrity that he's painful to watch. It would take more than Michael Porter to sort him out. (Gervais, incidentally, is now compering growing numbers of corporate functions, feeding from the hand he has bitten, at pounds 17,500 a time.)

From Britain's worst manager, let's move rapidly on to our best. This is the 13th year of Our Most Admired poll, the most closely watched of all business awards in the UK. It is a truly remarkable achievement for BP and its boss Lord Browne to win both Most Admired Company and Most Admired Leader. That double top has never occurred before and, in such difficult times, both deserve huge congratulations.

So, while we're sitting around feeling a bit got-at and sorry for ourselves, let's further accentuate the positive for a moment. If Britain's managers are so universally mediocre, how is it that the UK has the largest share in the Wall Street Journal's list of Europe's Top 500 companies, with 130 (26%) overall? Germany has only 87, France 81 and Italy 35. (BP, by the way, knocks Daimler Chrysler off its number one perch in the WSJ list for the first time.) Every nation has its David Brents, and this suggests that elsewhere in Europe there are more of them aimlessly hanging around the Fotokopier than there are here.

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