Tuesday, June 18, 2013
I just thought I’d let faithful followers of this blog know that I’m not dead, and don’t expect to be anytime soon. But I really do have nothing to say on this site, for various reasons.
I mean, I’m sure if I reinserted a splintery pole up my ass or stuck my moistened fingers in an electrical socket I could get myself worked up about all sorts of ridiculous nonsense taking place every day in the news, but I’ve never admired or aspired to the life of an intellectual mayfly. And nobody ever listens to my constructive criticisms about financial regulation, educational reform, or the price of pig feet in China anyway.
Not that they should, of course. Free advice is always worth what you pay for it.
But for the nonce I’ve gotten tired of the under-appreciated labor of love that is this cut rate opinion emporium. So I’m just gonna sip an umbrella drink on a hammock under a coconut tree on this little atoll and wallow in my bloggy desuetude.
If you feel compelled to get in touch with me, feel free to leave a message after the beep. I never check them anyway.
© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
“The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”
— Attributed to several indispensable men
Fire Jamie Dimon.
There, that got your attention, didn’t it?
Seriously, folks, the brouhaha surrounding the upcoming nonbinding shareholder vote to separate the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer roles at J.P. Morgan is getting a bit silly. People are marshaling all sorts of weak, irrelevant, and disingenuous reasons on both sides to argue for and against the resolution. Hence we get ludicrous examples of access journalists asking a gaggle of powerful white men whether another powerful white man should lose his power. Gee, I wonder how that turned out, don’t you?
I will not bore you with a demolition of the flyweight reasons the pros are using, including envy, spite, ad hominem vitriol, and gleeful detestation of Mr. Dimon as an avatar of hated “banksters” everywhere. On the other side, however, the cons have assembled all sorts of arguments against stripping Mr. Dimon of his Chairmanship which woefully fail to address the central point of the exercise, which is good corporate governance. Some say Jamie shepherded the House of Morgan through the dark days of the financial crisis with nary a scratch, and hence should be rewarded by keeping his seat at the head of the boardroom table. Yes he did, and a boffo job at that. So what? I got really good scores on my SATs. Did that mean I didn’t have to take tests or submit papers in college? Of course not: the past is the past. Besides, J.P. Morgan sailed into the Panic of 2008 in the best shape of any of its peers, with the possible exception of much smaller Goldman Sachs, which also came out smelling like a (relative) rose. It’s not like Jamie excavated a pile of shit and turned it into gold. He started with a pile of gold and mostly kept the tarnish off. No superhero he.
Some say the evidence of outperformance by companies with bifurcated Chairman/CEO roles is lacking. Part of that is due to the all-too notable reluctance of powerful men to give up power (viz. supra), which has led to a remarkable paucity of such structures among large publicly-traded corporations. Hence, the sample set from which one can draw financial performance data is unhelpfully small. Even so, this is a remarkably lame argument, equivalent to the contention that the fact that most people who wear seatbelts never get into accidents (and, contrariwise, wearing a seatbelt does not prevent accidents) means that seatbelts are useless. Go ahead and pull the other one.
Still other FOJs contend Mr. Dimon’s delivery of $21 billion in record profits last year should silence his critics and put the kibosh on this petty attempt to strip him of rightful powers and duties. But I say the man or woman at the helm of a $2.4 trillion colossus which employs over a quarter of a million people around the globe damn well better produce some pretty amazing results, especially when so many of its largest competitors remain in disarray, the cost of funds for financial firms could not be cheaper if Ben Bernanke were backing up a dump truck full of dead presidents into J.P. Morgan’s lobby, and his privately held bank is implicitly backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government (and perhaps the European Union, too).1 The man is a CEO. He is supposed to create good results with the awe inspiring assets he has at his disposal. He did. Big whoop. Give the man a fucking fruitcake.2
But all this is smoke and mirrors.
The entire point of separating the roles of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer is that they have different responsibilities and duties. They are different jobs. Now, perhaps at smaller companies with simple business models and uncomplicated objectives (grow revenues fast enough to meet payroll and pay the bank on time), there is no practical need to separate them. But the bigger a company gets—and I think we can all agree J.P. Morgan is about as big as a firm can get—the breadth and scope of duties each role properly possesses expands dramatically. The CEO is supposed to be the chief employee, leading his or her organization to deliver on the agenda and objectives the Board of Directors has set. The CEO is an operating executive.
The Chairman, on the other hand, is supposed to lead the Board of Directors in setting the agenda, strategy, and objectives of the corporation, in response to its employers, the shareholders, and all the other myriad stakeholders (employees, regulators, government officials, vendors, community members, and customers) which have a say or a stake in the activity of the firm. The Chairman and other directors of the corporation are stewards. They are not supposed to get down in the weeds, day to day, operating the various parts of the business. That is the CEO’s job. But as stewards they are supposed to think about the what-ifs, the perils and opportunities that may or may not confront the firm in the future, and the problems and threats which may be festering beneath the glittering surface of excellent corporate performance. A properly engaged CEO doesn’t have time to worry about such matters. He has a day job to perform.
The other key duty of the Board, with the Chairman at its head, is oversight. The Board is supposed to monitor the performance of the CEO and his or her key executives: guide, correct, discipline, and incentivize him or her to perform in a way which achieves the objectives they have set and satisfies the other constraints the firm must operate under. Even the meanest intelligence can see that having the Chairman and CEO of a firm be the same person collapses this crucial function into irrelevance:
“Gee, Jamie, do you think you’re performing adequately in the public relations part of your job?”
“Why, yes, Jamie, I think I’m doing a great job, don’t you?”
“Sure I do! Have a cigar.”
Of course, a soi-disant superman CEO could surely set his own agenda and monitor his own performance—just as his lesser peers can certainly contribute their valuable perspectives on such matters to their Boards—but such arrangements diminish the patently obvious benefit of involving more than one person’s perspective in the issue. Not to mention short-circuiting the potential for meaningful criticism and disagreement over firm challenges, issues, and threats which merit serious discussion. I don’t care how big your head is, two heads (or more) are always better than one.
The role of the Board as stewards of the firm and monitors of the CEO and his or her executive team naturally introduces a healthy tension into the governance of a large organization. A Board which is properly performing these duties will have occasion to challenge, correct, punish, reward, and occasionally fire a CEO. Find me a person who could legitimately do this to him or herself and I will show you a person who is temperamentally unsuited to the role of CEO. They just don’t make psychopaths that way.
So much for principle and common sense.
The real reason to strip Jamie Dimon of his Chairmanship is that he has done a shitty job at it. He has failed to accomplish one of the most important, difficult, and basic tasks a Chairman is supposed to do: establish a succession plan for the CEO. Each and every Board worth its perks and compensation should make finding and grooming successors to the firm’s current senior executives—especially the CEO—its most important agenda item. Not only has Jamie failed at this, he has actively fired key lieutenants and potential successors like Bill Winters and Steve Black, apparently on the basis that they posed too credible a threat to his own power.
The fact that certain people find Jamie’s petulant whining that he may quit if shareholders vote to strip him of the Chairman role a credible threat is proof positive that the current Chairman of J.P. Morgan has done a lousy job preparing for the inevitable eventuality that Dimon will have to be replaced. The current Chairman has also done a lousy job cajoling the current CEO to delegate more of the minutiae of running a place as gigantic and complex as J.P. Morgan to trusted lieutenants, and to train and mentor those lieutenants into a position where they can ultimately replace him. That these are related issues, and practices which strike at the very heart of the purported indispensability of any Chief Executive Officer, is highly revealing.
Finally, the current Chairman has done a lousy job selecting his other Board members, particularly in the all-important area of audit and risk management. The risk oversight and monitoring function at a gigantic, staggeringly complex lending and trading bank like J.P. Morgan is arguably the most important one—after CEO succession—a Board has. Yet Jamie stacked his risk committee with a former lawyer and professional board member previously on the risk committee at AIG who currently heads a natural history museum, a rich kid whose life experience consists of managing grandad’s money, and the CEO of a a flight controls company. I will wander way out on a limb here and bet these people couldn’t evaluate the financial risks of a childrens’ lemonade stand, much less one of the largest banks on the planet.
The current Chairman of J.P. Morgan has done a crappy job in almost every dimension that can be measured. And don’t point me to his lead director Tweety Bird, either. I don’t care how fearsome Lee Raymond’s reputation as a former imperial Chairman and CEO was, it is clear he can’t get Jamie Dimon to return his phone calls, much less address the critical areas of underperformance I have identified.
The agenda is clear: the current Chairman of J.P. Morgan should be run out of town on a rail. The current CEO can stay, assuming a new, effective, powerful Chairman thinks he’s up to snuff. Clearly somebody needs to smack that knucklehead around a little.
Fortunately, Jamie, you will be relieved to hear I am not available.
To Catch a Thief (February 13, 2009)
J.P. Morgan and the Marlboro Man (May 20, 2012)
1 Want to deny this? Envision, if you can, whether the US government would let anything happen to all of $2.4 trillion, 256,000 people strong J.P. Morgan if it got into serious trouble. Do you for a minute think they would let it crater like Lehman Brothers? That they would even consider it? I didn’t think so.
2 Or, say, $20 million.
© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
As chance would have it, a recent inquiry therein puzzled me enough to encourage me to pop my head up from my hidey hole in the Volcano Lair and offer a judicious comment or two. The hapless correspondent’s plea is brief:
I have worked in Global Markets for an investment bank since I graduated six years ago. I’ve recently been given the opportunity to go travelling with my boyfriend, but I wonder how long I can be away from the industry and still have a good chance of being re-employed on my return. Six months? One year? Three years? I’m also aware that when I get back, I’ll be an attached, childless woman in her early 30s, which shouldn’t affect my employment chances but I’m worried it will.
How can I manage this before we go to leave as many doors open as possible?
Banker, female, 28
Now, my first reaction on reading this tidbit was “Huh?” The emphasis, phrasing, and even question itself is all wrong. “Bloodless,” Lucy calls it, and bloodless it is. Putting aside the apparent implications for this person’s relationship with her boyfriend, it raises serious questions in my reptilian Managing Director’s brain concerning the status of her employment. Certain clues, like “worked in” and “being re-employed” lead me to believe that, notwithstanding this supplicant’s self-selected sobriquet, she is nothing remotely like a real, front office, revenue-generating “banker” and is instead a faceless, gormless member of the administrative, sales, or information technology support staff at her so-called investment bank. A real global markets banker worth the title would have 1) puffed herself up—“built a successful career in Global Markets for a leading investment bank”—and 2) crumpled the letter up and thrown it away before sending it to Lucy, because of course any bank in their right mind would hire a banker of her genius and ability no matter what the fuck she did for three years. People who are successful (and who have a sporting chance of success) in my business just don’t undersell themselves the way this person does.
But, in the interest of charity (and producing a blog post more interesting than this might otherwise be), I will choose to put another spin on the affair. Perhaps her passive-aggressive boyfriend—who has had to listen for years to glowing reports of her fast-paced, exciting life among funny, brilliant, puissant young men who make many multiples of the pittance he brings in as a clerk at the Carphone Warehouse—sent the letter to Lucy in hopes of guilting her into quitting her job and paying for his beach vacation in Phuket for the next three years. Or perhaps this person really is a talented, driven revenue producer who eats nails for breakfast and spits iron filings for lunch but, like many in her industry, is simply incapable of writing her way out of a paper bag with a map and a blowtorch. Or maybe even this person makes £100 million per year trading Cadbury DairyMilk futures for her desperately grateful third-rate Spanish commercial bank but has been cowed by all the ex-Carphone Warehouse employees waving “Occupy Whoever Has Money” signs in Trafalgar Square into epic self-deprecation.
You get the idea. Let’s assume the improbable and take this person’s letter as sincere.
In which case, my next question is also “Huh?” For a person who has been working in the capital markets division of a major investment or universal bank for six years surely should have developed some horse sense about her industry. People just don’t take sabbaticals in capital markets or investment banking. As Lucy rightly says, things change too fast. Markets change, securities change, customer relationships change. Disappear for one year, much less three, and nobody will remember your name, much less care what you have to say about anything.
I had a Managing Director tell me years ago, when I was a mere pup, wet behind the ears, that the best strategy to succeed in investment banking was to keep your seat. Success would come, and success would go, but you could never enjoy the fruits of good luck or a heated market if you weren’t in a position where you could get paid. Young and naive as I was, I remember finding this advice rather cynical and dispiriting. Surely you kept your seat and made lots of money for your firm because you were really good, because clients respected and trusted you, because you gave them great advice. Because you were better than anybody else. This was stupid on my part. He was right.
Nobody is indispensable in my industry. Nobody. Ever. For every hotshot trader or investment banker glorying in her run of luck and outsized compensation, there are twenty waiting in the wings who could do just as good a job. And a hundred who would be willing to work for half pay to prove they could do so too.
I’ve said it a billion times: in investment banking or sales and trading, you’re only as good as your last deal or your last trade. And your last deal or your last trade had much more to do with you being in the right place at the right time—being in the right seat—than with your charm, skill, or intelligence. And none of us know when the right deal is going to hit.
Everybody figures this out sooner or later. Senior management knows it by heart. So when a banker leaves the industry of their own volition, the message is very clear: “I’m never coming back.”
Which is not to say you shouldn’t do it. Hey, maybe you’re tired of the grind. Maybe you’ve done your time in Hell, and it’s time to enjoy life a little. Working investment banking hours, under investment banking pressure, with a bankful of aggressive, psychopathic assholes for six years until the age of 28 is enough to make anyone want to chill out on the beach with an umbrella drink for a year or three. It’s your life.
Just don’t have any expectations that your old job, or anything like it, will be waiting for you when you get back. Your experience will be stale and out of date: useless. And there is nothing about your charm or intelligence that will distinguish you from the line of a hundred identical eager valedictorians waiting outside our hiring office. If anything, they’re probably hungrier and more naive (hence more malleable) than you. Intelligence is table stakes. What really makes an investment banker successful is drive and ambition. Will you still have it after traveling the world?
If so, feel free to reapply. But, take it from me, you better have some damn good stories to tell: why you left, what you did while you were away, and why you want to come back. Those are real assets. The rest of us poor slobs who stayed behind want to hear what the real world looks like. But more importantly, we want to believe if we give you one of the scarce seats we have to offer you’re going to have the skill and the drive to make us—and yourself—a boatload of money. That’s the tradeoff: our seat, and the opportunity to make ridiculous amounts of money if you’re lucky, in exchange for your single-minded ambition to do so.
Investment banking is a jealous mistress. She does not suffer indifferent commitment gladly. And she has far too many suitors for her favors to dally with anyone who is not willing to give her one hundred percent.
You do the math.
1 In contrast, say, to lazy dilettantes too eager to take cheap shots without doing the hard work of actually critiquing all too widespread management idiocies in an enlightening manner.
© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
|Kawase Hasui, Spring Evening at Kintai Bridge, 1947|
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
— Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
We have had one of the longest and most beautiful Springs in New York City this year I can remember. The flowers and blossoming trees seem brighter and longer-lasting than normal, although I have nothing but faulty memory to claim this as fact.
Perhaps I have been more alert to signs of Spring than I am wont after a long and difficult Winter, and more appreciative of the tilting of our planet as balmy breezes and warming sunshine replace bitter freeze. Certainly there has been little enough change in my life for me to believe cold Winter has been banished for good. But hope rises up like tree sap.
The cherry blossoms and gardenias of Central Park fade already. Greedy trees suck up snow melt and sunshine to carpet the grass with shade and canopy over the sky with green. Hot, hard Summer is coming.
Get out now, while you can, and drink the sweet dregs of Spring while they last. There is a special glory to warm sunshine when it is tempered by cool grass and the chilly whispers of Winter’s reluctant departure on the breeze.
Get out now. One day there will come a Winter whose Spring you will never see. Do not waste the Spring you have today.
Nothing gold can stay.
© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
CHAKOBSA: the so-called “magnetic language” derived in part from the ancient Bhotani (Bhotani Jib—Jib meaning dialect). A collection of ancient dialects modified by needs of secrecy, but chiefly the hunting language of the Bhotani, the hired assassins of the first Wars of Assassins.
— Frank Herbert, Dune
Normally, O Dearly Beloved, I am a fan of author and commentator Steven Poole’s witty takedowns of the silly, pretentious behavior humans get up to on occasion. I think I discovered him in medias res, skinning, gutting, and flambéing the “foodie” culture while it yet lived, and the amusing screams of pain and outrage emanating from his victims still echo satisfyingly in this non-foodie’s ears.
But his latest screed on what he calls “management-speak”—the jargon common to corporate businesses and their environs—falls rather more clangingly and less persuasively from his pen. In fact, it comes across rather like Mr. Poole and his pals from the Drones Explorers Club just burst through the forest wall into some Papua New Guinea clearing in 1920 and are pointing and jeering at the bewildered natives in ceremonial costumes:
“My God, Bertie, that chap has painted his entire body with mud! And the Missus isn’t wearing any clothes! Ahahahahaha!!”It is perhaps fortunate that the corporate world is widely understood to hold a position of social and economic power, else Mr. Poole’s little exercise in cross-cultural satire might get slapped with a libel suit and be investigated for evidence of a hate crime against the underprivileged.
For it is blindingly clear that not only does Mr. Poole beg the question of the purportedly stultifying and spirit-sapping nature of management-speak—stipulating it as true rather than demonstrating it—but also that he has a remarkably ill-informed grasp of the jargon he criticizes, a desperately poor understanding of the way such language is used, and a surprisingly tin ear to boot. If I were a less charitable man, I might suggest that Mr. Poole is a culturally blinkered scrivener who has never set foot inside an actual business meeting or participated in business communication beyond giggling at press releases1 and watching satiric corporate soap operas on the BBC. If I really wanted to score points, I might accuse him of flogging sloppy, tendentious nonsense designed to provoke the anti-business and anti-elitist prejudices of a certain class of fellow Brits so they will go out and buy his new book. But I wouldn’t want to be accused of being culturally insensitive to the species Homo authoriensis, so I won’t even mention it.
So, in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, let me reach my hand across the gaping divide between those who work for a living and those who cannot understand why they have to to proffer a little gentle education. Mr. Poole’s list of the ten worst offenders among management-speak will stand as a serviceable roadmap for my purposes.
1. Going forward
Yes, this phrase does indeed stand in for “from now on” or “in future,”2 as Mr. Poole suggests. But while he catches its rhetorical intent—which by the way is common to much management-speak and business jargon—he is too busy alleging progress can never be made in business to notice the source of its rhetorical power. For, unlike the anodyne, directionless vagueness of “in future,” going forward implies motion, action, and, most importantly, direction. There’s a reason the preferred coinage is not “going backward.” While I do not mean to freight this modest phrase with unwarranted profundity, the idea of purposeful action and progress is central to most management and business communications, for even the dullest businessperson realizes the biggest risk in any large organization is inertia. “In future” implies no imperative. “Going forward” does.
2. Drill down
I hope Mr. Poole’s other writing is not as drab and inventionless as his literal equation of “drill down” with “look at in detail” implies. If so, I’d probably find reading Her Majesty’s Government’s telephone directory more thrilling. Drill down is a wonderful metaphor, incorporating geological and investigatory overtones of impressive metaphorical power. Drill down implies there are layers to penetrate, mysteries to uncover, complexities to map. Drilling down requires energy, focus, and effort, and drilling attempts to uncover both buried history and the structure under the surface. Drill down is a term of due diligence, where the intent and practice is to gain a deeper understanding of a business or other phenomenon you do not already understand. Drilling down is not what some passive paper pusher with an eye on the clock does; drilling down is what an explorer does. Mr. Poole’s puerile metaphor of drilling as sexual penetration doesn’t even come close. Nobody I know who has used the term has ever used it with such a leer in their voice.
I cannot disagree with Mr. Poole that “verbings” are anathema. My personal bête noire is that horrid specimen “to impact.” (As far as I am concerned, only teeth get impacted.) But I would note that verbings are not restricted to business. And, unlike many forms of jargon or specialized argot, verbings do nothing to enrich language with metaphor or rhetorical power, and the real English phrases they replace are not much longer, if at all, so they provide no useful economy or speed of expression. In almost every instance, they are just evidence of linguistic (and mental) laziness. A pox on them, I say.
4. End of play
Not being a native of the Sceptered Isle who learned what bubble and squeak was at Mary Poppins’ knee, I cannot say whether “end of play” is truly a corporate Britishism or merely a phrase Mr. Poole misheard from his friend in the steno pool at British Land. In any event, it sounds much more to me like a phrase from sport, which, if Mr. Poole had ever spent time in a corporate environment, he would recognize as one of the prevailing metaphors of business. While I myself am skeptical that sport provides useful or revealing metaphors for business, I find it odd to associate it with childhood or “infantilized workers.” Unless Mr. Poole thinks the billions of pounds at stake in the Premier League are somehow childs’ play.
Honestly, what does Mr. Poole have against delivery? Was his uncle a disgruntled Royal Mail employee? Delivery, while itself being inoffensive to most human beings, carries the useful implication that the person delivering the goods is often not the person responsible for their production, which many times takes place at different places at the hands of different individuals. And yet—as we may surmise by the fact that real individuals, including non-businesspersons, pay real money to postal services and parcel express carriers to deliver items they themselves did not produce to arrive on time and in good condition—the act of delivery itself carries value and merits attention. Finally, as service providers such as Yours Truly occasionally use the term, “deliverables” is a useful abbreviation for all sorts of preliminary, interim, and finished work products (yes, I went there) that are due at specified times in specified sequence in a complex process involving multiple parties over an extended period of time. I would much prefer to use the all-encompassing abbreviation “Deliverables” than an exhaustive laundry list like “Teaser, Non-Disclosure Agreement, Confidential Information Memorandum, Buyers List, Process Letter, Definitive Agreement, and Closing Schedules, if, as, and when appropriate” in everyday communications with an M&A client, for instance. Can you blame me?
How typical for a Brit to identify the generous, inclusive, and expansive term “issues” with “problems.” I remember how revelatory I found it early in my career to discover that many natives of Old Blighty would respond to the proposal of almost any new business idea or process with the prefatory throat clearing, “Ah. The problem is...” It could be the national anthem. Yes, “issues” can be euphemism for problems, but it can also mean consequences, implications, outcomes, preconditions, or almost anything else upon which there might be differing opinions or which should be discussed. Business is complex, business is riven by ineluctable uncertainty, and business is riddled with myriad issues. Not every issue is a problem, but, by its very nature as an issue, every issue must be addressed. This, by the way, is what the quotidian practice of the business world consists of: the identification, discussion, and resolution of issues. “Problems.” Pshaw.
Yes, I suppose I and my fellow baby seal murderers in the financial profession are responsible for the glamorization of “leverage,” if not directly for its introduction into non-financial contexts. What can I say? Leverage is indeed a powerful concept, based, strangely enough, on the mechanism of the lever (to which Mr. Poole alludes), which the last time I checked my high school physics text meant a hell of a lot more than “use” or “exploit.” Application of a lever—like a corporate capability, say—in certain contexts can generate far more powerful outcomes than the application of brute force. It depends on the context, specifically the presence of a fulcrum. In certain circumstances, certain corporate attributes can be far more effective and powerful than a simple evaluation of their standalone properties might suggest. Of course, in finance the identification of the lever and the fulcrum is simple and comes prepackaged in the capital structure (where the presence of debt enables a much smaller quantity or force of equity to perform much more effectively than by itself). I suspect the identification and exploitation of coherent levers and fulcrums is more problematic outside of finance than in, but is that not why they pay corporate executives the big bucks?
Bleeding heart anti-business lefties should be delighted that businesses at least pay lip service to the notion of stakeholders. The concept really means all those individuals and organizations who have an ongoing stake in the performance and actions of a corporation, including employees, customers, vendors, suppliers, governments, and yes, even security holders. The concept that a firm has obligations to all of its stakeholders is real and serious enough that the gimlet-eyed archons of capitalism on the Delaware Court of Chancery have specifically enjoined corporations to support it and protected them from ravening shareholders and plaintiffs attorneys when they have. “Stakeholders,” of course, replaces the archaic notion that only the interests of equity shareholders—the nominal “owners” of a corporation—matter to the conduct of a firm. It’s a good word, and an important concept. The fact that certain firms use it as a smokescreen for less savory behavior is less a criticism of the neologism than one of bad actors.
Okay, I concede this one. “Competencies” is just lame.
Again, Mr. Poole projects a monochrome shadow of a living word on a blackboard and complains the image is flat and uninteresting. Sunsets are slow, gradual, and predictable. Sunset implies that a project will tail off gradually over time, dying a slow and natural death as resources are consumed or withdrawn. Sunsets are not sudden and violent deaths. Only a business tyro would think that every business project either continues full strength or is taken out behind the chemical sheds and shot. Business projects have life cycles. Pace its deplorable construction as a verbing, sunset is a perfectly acceptable and descriptive metaphor for a common business action. We are not all Mother Teresa or the Terminator.
In fact, Mr. Poole’s jeremiad is in general a deplorable exercise in sneering incomprehension. He seems to have no insight or understanding whatsoever that the metaphors embedded in management-speak are not incidental but rather central to their purpose and continued usefulness. He glances passingly at the notion that they might be primarily rhetorical devices, but then he ignores this key insight for childish cheap shot-taking. His principal objection to the professional argot of an occupation he does not share seems to be that it offends his sense of linguistic and literary propriety.
Sure, like any language—English, for example—management-speak can be used “to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations.” But that is a function of language. And make no mistake: bureaucratese is its own language. Or, to be more precise, its own idiom. Idioms evolve organically among the members of a group sharing common interests and concerns to better communicate those very interests and concerns. This can take the form of abbreviation, where a commonly understood word or phrase can convey an entire sentence or conversation; motivation, where a word or phrase is understood to inspire action; or community-building, where the word or phrase triggers thoughts and actions of allegiance and commonality among its audience. These all necessarily exclude people outside the in-group, but this does not need to be a sinister thing. Try to follow a conversation among particle physicists in the Cal Tech lunchroom one day if you doubt me.
Human society is complex and highly specialized. It should be no surprise that we have erected our own Tower of Babel of mutually incomprehensible idioms, even within the English language, in order to cope. If nothing else, management-speak and other specialized idioms thrive because they are efficient: they save lots of time which conversationalists would otherwise waste in trivial itemizing and explication of concepts, notions, beliefs, and the like which they already share and understand. Business speak, like many other idioms, shares the additional motivation that it is primarily a rhetorical device, designed to summon and direct the energies of hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands toward the pursuit and execution of common goals which the rest of society does not necessarily share. Its practitioners really don’t care what unwashed outsiders think about it.
Perhaps Mr. Poole fails to understand that management-speak is not directed at him, nor at any other person not invested in the success of the organization which uses it (which probably includes many of the clock-watching wage slaves in its employ). Like the costume of the Papua New Guinean mud man to Bertie Wooster, our argot may appear harsh, awkward, even ridiculous to him, but that is simply because he cannot understand its true import and meaning. Saying business jargon is awkward is like complaining that white lies are untrue: accurate, as far as it goes, but it misses the entire point.
Besides, Steven, we all have our little communications quirks, innit?
Steven Poole, 10 of the worst examples of management-speak (The Guardian, April 25, 2013)
Hail Mary, Full of Grace (May 26, 2011)
1 An easy and deserving target, I am careful to admit.
2 I would not dream of criticizing the eccentric British tendency to drop prepositions and definite articles willy nilly from common phrases for some inexplicable classist motive of their own: “go down [to] the pub,” “in [the] future.” So I will just move on, silently.
© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.