Friday, January 30, 2009

The Cult of Management?

I have been thinking a lot about the economic meltdown recently, especially since it has affected the overwhelming majority of my Midwestern-dwelling extended family, and the doom-and-gloom (seemingly weekly) meetings at work. At the same time, I find myself thinking about the colossal failure of the Bush administration, which is like a Matryoshka doll of monumental disasters. There is a similar thread running through a lot of this, in that people in charge of large entities seem to know very little about the entities that they run.

The biggest, most public domestic blunder was Katrina. In this case, we had Michael Brown, a Bush crony with little prior knowledge of or experience in disaster relief, emergency management, etc. Nothing in his allegedly padded resume rendered him even remotely an expert.

Remember Bush’s first EPA appointee? The woefully unqualified career politician Christine Todd-Whitman, whose environmental and scientific experience was non-existent. The list goes on and on; I needn’t belabor the point.

This happens in the business world as well, with equally disastrous results. What do you think the CEO’s of Chrysler and GM really know about making cars? An M.B.A. isn’t an industry-specific degree, yet many people flit from company to company and industry to industry in positions of considerable power. 7-11 to Blockbuster? Sure. A city prosecutor running a hospital? Why not (a quick Google search yields a great deal more). If you haven’t noticed it, the “promote-from-within” model is long dead in this country, because we have privileged this idea of strong executives. A business degree from Harvard means you are qualified to run anything from a cracker factory to the United States of America, and a large segment of the population considers any degree of “executive experience” to be superior to any kind of collaborative or deliberative work.

The bottom line is this: I think many of our businesses are failing because the wrong people are in power. How many times during the auto bailout discussion did the issue of how horribly the Big Three are managed come up? The flashy risk-takers, the schemers, the guys looking for the big bonuses, those that manipulate numbers and people—they know how to operate this fake game, but substantively know very little. I have no faith that they actually know how to run successful companies in their specific industries. There are, of course, many exceptions, but my concern remains—I have no faith in a business leadership that recycles the same greedy hacks that destroy American companies and imperil the financial stability of the working class. There is a huge CEO revolving-door policy. All the corporate-speak and flashy buzzwords in the worlds really don’t mean much when your company is imploding around you-- especially when you know that the game ensures you a multi-million dollar golden parachute as your worst case scenario.