Pride comes before a fall

Asked to rate their own performance, today's companies are more confident than those of a decade ago. But only a quarter of 1997's super-confident fighters have survived, says andrew saunders. The meek shall inherit the earth, yea, even in the boardroom ...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall, as the famous Old Testament quotation (Proverbs, chapter 16, verse 18) has it - in full - on the subject of what is usually regarded by students of human weakness as the seventh and deadliest sin.

The biblical prose may be a bit purple by contemporary standards, but the sentiment remains as true in the modern, ego-fuelled world of big business as it was in those far-off days of fire and brimstone. Who remembers HTV? Cordiant? Sema Group? Lasmo?

According to new research from our BMAC survey's professor Mike Brown, an overdose of hubris may have played a part in the downfall not only of these companies but of others like them: riding high a decade or so ago but long since acquired by stronger, fitter and less arrogant rivals.

Brown and his team have conducted a revealing analysis of the difference between the scores companies award themselves during the BMAC assessment process (self-perception) and those given to them by their rivals (peer-perception). And to gain an idea of where the trend is going, Brown's team has done so for two separate years - 1997 and 2006.

They have reached two key conclusions from the comparison over a decade. First, that excessively confident firms are the least likely to be around some years later. And, second, that the number of such super-confident businesses may be growing.

The average perception gap between self- and peer-perceptions in 1997 was consistent, at a relatively modest 1 to 1.5 points. And rightly so - any company whose bosses thought their market rivals were more capable than they were themselves would surely not be long for this business world.

But when the 240-odd individual companies were divided into four groups based on the degree of confidence their scores indicate (ie, points over the peer-perception base), it was found that as confidence increases, the likelihood of a firm still being listed eight years later falls dramatically.

Only 27% of 1997's most excessively confident, hubristic firms remained on the London Stock Exchange in 2005, compared to 71% of the least confident. In other words, companies without delusions of grandeur to distort their vision of the market are two and a half times more likely to survive in the longer term than those that regard success as theirs by right.

Fast-forward to 2006, when, although peer scores remain stable, self-confidence - and with it, over-confidence - is on the rise. The perception gap is widening, increasing across the board but most significantly in three key areas: Quality of management; the Ability to attract, develop and retain top talent; and Community and environmental responsibility.

Given what happened to their proud forbears from the class of '97, the future doesn't look rosy for the haughtiest of today's top British companies.


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