Behind the numbers: stop airing your dirty laundry

In Australia, the government is selling off its stake in telecommunications
giant Telstra – and wants its own nominee on the board to ensure its interests
are served. The views of fellow board members are deemed irrelevant.

In the US, HP’s simmering, decade-long boardroom row over acquisition
strategy and management style has resulted in admissions of corporate spying. As
Carly Fiorina, the ousted chief executive, said last week on the back of her
(inevitable) memoir of her time at the top:’I think it did lift a veil on the
dysfunction that existed in the boardroom.’

Closer to home, a price-fixing probe has cost BA two senior executives.
Commercial director Martin George admitted that in his department ‘there may
have been conversations in violation of company policy in relation to long-haul
fuel surcharges.’

And don’t forget two prominent finance directors are on their way out too.
Alison Reed led Standard Life through its controversial £4.7bn flotation, only,
according to hints she has dropped, to be forced out this month. And Margaret
Ewing is leaving her role as airports operator following a Ferrovial takeover.

So are executives suddenly, to adapt a fashionable phrase, institutionally
inept? No, are they more political than ever? Undoubtedly, and often to the
point where it seems personal rivalries are put first and collective best
interests second.

One CFO complained to me recently about how many times the Monday board
meeting agendas had appeared in the previous day’s Sunday Times. Business
journalists thrive on leaks but, and it pains me to say this, are they in the
best interests of a company rather than a particular individual?

Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new, but it does seem more prevalent
than ever. And before any partners in accountancy firms get too high handed,
‘boardroom’ disagreements in practices are even more commonplace than in
corporates. Too many partners still see themselves as heads of owner-managed
businesses not as divisional managers within larger organisations.

Damian Wild is group editor in chief

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