Sarah Gordon’s reflections on her 20 years’ writing on business in the Financial Times has several valuable lessons for business leaders and their advisors.
For UK plc, the score-card is hardly encouraging (“Most companies are run pretty badly”), but not wholly pessimistic (“…but business is not bad.”).
Sarah Gordon offers a number of reasons why we find ourselves in such a sorry state, but top of her list is the view that business failure stems less from process or financial instruments and more from “behaviour and character”.
Many would agree with this insight, which is all too familiar.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Richard Lambert, the outgoing editor of the Financial Times, wrote about the lessons learned from his newspaper’s flawed coverage of Enron, which stemmed from a disproportionate focus on the charismatic individuals behind the business rather than the business itself. He went on to say that the FT and business reporting generally must in future be more questioning and less trusting of business leaders.
Ten years on, it’s questionable whether business reporting has improved and learned these lessons.
We need only to look at the sycophantic reporting of the rise of Theranos by some of the world’s leading financial journals to see that old habits die hard. So captivating was the story of the firm’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes – young, attractive and very credible – that few were prepared to look beneath the bonnet and question the veracity of what was claimed to be pioneering and commercially valuable science.
Ultimately in this case journalism triumphed and the lies and deception of Theranos were exposed. But the journalist who pursued this story was very brave, putting the pursuit of truth ahead of his career.
Herein lies the problem, which Richard Lambert identified in his article: it’s much easier to investigate governments than business because what happens in corporations goes on behind closed doors.
We as PR advisors have something to answer for here. We all boast about transparency, but in truth within limits. We need to think more about how we can help the media to understand a company beyond the stage-managed results announcements.
And those advisors, both internal and external, who work with business leaders whose values and conduct are known to be questionable should examine their consciences and decide whether there are limits to defending the indefensible.
For the media, the challenge is even greater: how to write interesting business stories which go beyond profiling the CEO, particularly those who shout loudest.
I grant it’s not easy, but, in my experience, the companies which achieve sustained success are very often those managed by teams and not overweening individual power.
That’s an interesting story which has yet to be told.