Workforce – “not assets to be managed”

I owe thanks to Ali Webster, Assistant Director for Workforce at West London Mental Health Trust, for opening her presentation at a meeting yesterday with a compelling quotation from a 2015 King’s Fund paper on talent management[1]:

“Successful deployment of workforce talent is about rethinking your view of your employees. They are not assets to be managed but rather people with options who have chosen to invest their aspirations and motivations with your organisation for a while and who will expect a reasonable return on their investment in the form of personal growth and opportunities.”

This is Escondido Framework thinking. You do not own the people who work for you – even if the way that you treat them may leave them thinking of themselves as wage slaves. You have secured their services in a market transaction in which there are two parties, selling to each other and offering opportunities to each other. And both parties are making an investment in the relationship, with both “expect[ing] a reasonable return on their investment”.

[1] Sarah Massie, “Talent Management: Developing leadership not just leaders”. Kings Fund 2015

Is Capitalism Killing America?

I was stopped in my tracks this morning by an email from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with the subject line “Is Capitalism Killing America?”. It is not the sort of thing that the world’s top business school (at least that was how it was rated forty years ago when I was there) normally sends to its alumni.

The key feature in the email newsletter was an article with the subheading “Young & Rubicam Chairman Emeritus Peter Georgescu says it’s time to end the era of shareholder primacy[1] which reviews Georgescu’s new book Capitalists Arise! End Economic Inequality, Grow the Middle Class, Heal the Nation (Berrett-Koehler, 2017). Georgescu, a fellow Stanford GSB “alumn”, is looking to chief executives to think about how, and for whom, they run their companies.

Capitalism is an endangered economic system, Georgescu says. He cites by economist William Lazonick, who studied S&P 500 companies from 2003 to 2012 and discovered that they routinely spend 54% of their earnings buying back their own stock and 37% of their earnings on leaving just 9% of earnings for investment in their business and their people.

Innovation is the only real driver of success in the 21st century, and who does the innovation? Our employees. How are we motivating them? We treat them like dirt. If I need you, I need you. If I don’t, you’re out of here. And I keep your wages flat for 40 years,” says Georgescu, who points out that growth in real wages has been stagnant since the mid-1970s.

Georgescu continues by noting that the lack of investment in business and their people feeds back into demand, undermining sales growth. With median household income in the US less than 1% higher today than in 1989: “There’s no middle class, and the upper middle class has very little money left to spend, so they can’t drive the economy. The only people driving the GDP are the top 20% of us”. 60% of American households are technically insolvent and adding to their debt loads each year. In addition, income inequality in the U.S. is reaching new peaks: The top layer of earners now claim a larger portion of the nation’s income than ever before — more even than the peak in 1927, just two years before the onset of the Great Depression.

Georgescu blames the ascendency of the doctrine of shareholder primacy.

“Today’s mantra is ‘maximize short-term shareholder value.’ Period,” he says. “The rules of the game have become cancerous. They’re killing us. They’re killing the corporation. They’re helping to kill the country……..

“The cure can be found in the post–World War II economic expansion. From 1945 until the 1970s, the U.S economy was booming and America’s middle class was the largest market in the world. In those days, American capitalism said, ‘We’ll take care of five stakeholders,’. Then and now, the most important stakeholder is the customer. The second most important is the employee. If you don’t have happy employees, you’re not going to have happy customers. The third critical stakeholder is the company itself — it needs to be fed. Fourth come the communities in which you do business. Corporations were envisioned as good citizens — that’s why they got an enormous number of legal protections and tax breaks in the first place.

“If you serve all the other stakeholders well, the shareholders do fine,” he says. “If you take good care of your customers, pay your people well, invest in your own business, and you’re a good citizen, the shareholder does better. We need to get back to that today. Every company has got to do that.”

It’s refreshing to hear this from one of the grand old men of the commercial world in the United States. But in his critique of “shareholder value”, he fails to single out the principal beneficiaries, the chief executives and top management teams themselves (including our fellow business school alumni) who have exploited the system to cream off an ever increasing share of the rewards in salaries, bonuses and options, all the while failing to invest in productive assets, innovation, securing long term positions with customers and local communities, and in the people who work in the companies themselves.