UK: Heller on management - A quick return to square one. (2 of 2)

UK: Heller on management - A quick return to square one. (2 of 2) - Whacking the unions worked wonders for one especially woeful management set, the newspaper barons, but could only do equal benefit elsewhere if (as in the media) the union Mafia had been

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Whacking the unions worked wonders for one especially woeful management set, the newspaper barons, but could only do equal benefit elsewhere if (as in the media) the union Mafia had been the real restraint on progress. In all too many cases the right to manage was not so much seized by the unions as abrogated by the management. Surely the string of corporate disasters in 1990 demonstrates that feebleness lay in the boardroom, not on the shopfloor. Nor, the cynic might remark, did incentives of gross size prevent Sir Ralph Halpern from making a pig's ear of the Burton renaissance.

You do not have to be a cynic to make a similar observation about deregulation. Too many corpses are littering the City for anybody to deny that deregulation unleashed a spate of ridiculously ill-considered acquisitions, expansions and strategies. Management after management bit off far more than could be chewed, let alone swallowed, and paid the price. Much the same observation can be made of the many fallen Thatcherite stars. So management ability undoubtedly improved: but in too many cases it stopped well short of management ambition.

The list of Thatcherite achievements provides some clues to this widespread phenomenon. The retrenchment enforced by the first recession of the era, which caused 20% of manufacturing industry to disappear, permanently reduced relative competitive potential. "Laissez-faire" diverted resources into areas where quick returns beckoned (property, retailing, financial services) and away from those where patient build-up was required. With the unions emasculated, management had less incentive to concentrate on the real crucial objective - which is to enlist willing co-operation at all levels of the firm in the successful pursuit of long-term "think big" objectives.

Swingeing tax cuts and other fiscal and non-fiscal breaks rewarded managers too handsomely for doing no better than before. Deregulation produced a free-for-all in the City, as banks fell over themselves and each other in the scramble to finance management enterprises of the utmost lunacy. It does not seem to have been the most encouraging atmosphere for the intelligent execution of intelligent plans, reached with full intelligence: in other words, modern management.

The tragedy is that the consequent failure is already ushering in a new spate of cutbacks. It has been accompanied by an unprecedented wave of cutdowns: the removal of chief executives whose managerial failings have caused collapses in share prices. That in itself is healthy: except that a setback which is rewarded (as in Halpern's case) with a £2 million payoff falls some way short of the punishment fitting the deficiencies.

Does that sentence contain the ultimate answer? The long-running corporate crisis can only be cured by trained, professional, imaginative management which concentrates on building long-term global strengths while keeping firm control over short-term local difficulties and immediate rewards. The Thatcher era encouraged too many to look to short-term payoffs and to leave the long term to look after itself. It won't.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime