Around the world – A different kind of Bob

New York: Anyone who reads the business press will know that there seem to be a lot of executives on the move these days. Such is the shortage in the management ranks here in America that virtually anyone can get a bag full of stock options and other goodies tacked on to an already molto grosso salary.

And if you’re actually any good the stakes are really high. One senior head-hunter in this town says that for the good guys, you don’t move them from one position to another anymore, you “unstick them”. What this entails is complicated and very often includes the corporation doing the buying, not only getting clouted for signing-on bonuses (which everyone denies, but actually DO pay), but often having to buy up the stock options as well. Not only does this get expensive, but, as a total remuneration package, it comes loaded with serious legal muscle. Well, hey, this is New York – of course it would stupid!

As one well-heeled search vulture confided, “you can tell how big a search it is by whether in takes two sets of lawyers or three (the cool number to have) to get the guy placed in the new company.” It would seem that status these days comes with just how many legal eagles are cruising around your corpse during the due diligence process – once known as candidate interviews, now known as “direct face time” – on whether you jump across the street or not.

But why all this activity? Because everyone is unhappy with the people in their top echelons right now and are looking for new blood.

Phrases like, “we are recreating our management team to meet the needs of the global economy,” or “to ensure that we are positioned to benefit from the changes in the business cycle,” are in corporate advertisements everywhere. And it has now reached a peak in those horrible corporate diseases which get passed on even faster than a new management book fad.

End result? Everyone is swapping people around and they’re proud of it, as well. One corporate VP smugly announced to me that they had “dropped a third of their top people and hired a new third, more in keeping with the businesses we want to be in,” in a three-week period.

And we mustn’t worry about the one third (200 managers) who got the good-bye note. Oh no, they are either happily in another job – where their incompetence won’t be discovered for another zillion years – or they cashed in all those stock options and are sitting pool-side in Miami, wondering why they ever commuted three hours each way every day for 25 years.

So all this is good stuff isn’t it? New blood to keep the wheels of corporate America rolling: bright young bucks (there are still very few lady bucks involved in all this) who are going to keep that share price, those quarterly earnings right up there in the record books? Well it is and it isn’t.

My little experiment – hey, I’m just an inquisitive guy – while wandering around Fortune 500 companies on Park Avenue and the like, went like this: “so you are moving a lot of your people around, getting in new blood to fight the global battles? OK, so what kind of people are you looking for? I assume that you need a European, an Asian, a Latin American for that expanding marketplace somewhere south of New Jersey?”

And the senior VPs of HR all nod their heads sagely and they say, “yes, of course we are looking at all sorts of skills and talents and experience.

Of course to fight the international fight we need people who know what’s going on. You betcha, we’re right there, in the street, on the money”.

“So,” I say, “can we go down the corridor of super international (even global) power and meet some of these new people: these foreigners. Find out how they are doing?”

Apparently not.

You see in corporate America they would like to try and go that far.

Get an Asian, a European. Might even get beyond the thought stage and actually begin to do something about it.

But go out and get a handful of annual reports of Fortune 500 companies and turn to that picture of the people who run the company. Yes, they are all in blue suits and white shirts, all male, all white and they are ALL called Bob.

Companies might say they are going global and they are going to have the right sort of people to make that global adventure happen. But it isn’t Jacques or Juan or Jurgen who’s going to be in the vanguard of change.

As far as these buttoned-down types are going to go (recruitment-wise) is what one admitted: “Sure we want some different people who can do different things, but when it comes down to it, I can tell you exactly how far the board is going to go. What we want is just a different kind of Bob.”

So don’t look for excitement on the pages of the 1997 annual reports, and don’t look for women, minorities or foreigners. But with all the musical chairs activity you might – if you have sharp eyes – just see the end result. Gracious me, that Bob at bottom left is different: is that a patterned tie? And that shirt could be blue!

Three sets of lawyers, millions in stock option buy-ups and all you get is a different shirt. Not a lot to go on in facing the global business battle, but it does keep the head-hunters in the payments on their Mercedes and Chris Craft; especially as there is always another Bob right around that corporate corner.

Mike Johnson is president of Johnson & Associates, a Brussels-based corporate communications consultancy, and author of Getting a GRIP on Tomorrow, Managing in the Next Millennium and two new books on Teleworking and Outsourcing.

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