This week Bob Diamond became the latest BigCo CEO to fall on his sword following accusations of poor leadership and corporate mismanagement. I doubt very much that the former Barclays head will be the last to roll.
The dominant feature of today's economy is failure. Even before the credit crunch of 2008 around 80% of new product launches were unsuccessful.
The truth is that commercial success has always been difficult to sustain, but never more so than today. The number of options facing business leaders in the 21st century can be baffling. The rapid evolution in technology alone provides companies with an overwhelming number of strategic opportunities. You may ask where would you be without your broadband, satnav or smart phone but the answer is, most likely, in 2003, 2005 or 2008. Had you been a CEO who failed to predict any one of these developments, you will have found that backing the wrong horse is easily done and usually ruinous, with share prices mauled, profits eroded and jobs lost - quite possibly yours.
There is an argument that with failure so prevalent, and serendipity usually making the biggest unspoken contribution to success, then trying to run a business properly might be counter-productive. After all, if you're in a position where you know you are unlikely to succeed, a better strategy might be to make it look like you are succeeding, perhaps even 'bending the rules' if you have to (although some might call that cheating). The rigging of global interest rates by Barclays should be seen as nothing other than an attempt to fool people into thinking that the bank was performing better than it really was; that its management team really was worth those six and seven figure bonuses they were paying themselves.
In a society that values winning above everything else, we should not be surprised that a culture of cheating has become endemic. So much so in fact that it is now entirely possible to enjoy a successful career without achieving anything at all, without ever being involved with a successful company or project.
Every day in the media we see famous people living fabulous lives: role models who are not really famous for very much at all; perhaps singing songs, looking nice in a frock, taking their top off, dancing in time to music, reading an autocue or almost having sex with someone they've known for five minutes on a reality TV show. The result is that success and achievement have become mutually exclusive: people want to be famous - they just don't want to be famous for anything in particular.
The corporate world is also filled with people who have realised that presentation is more important than substance. Many will be building hugely successful careers based on this premise. For them, their employer is no more than a vehicle to further their personal ambition. If the company's objectives fit in with their own, then all well and good, but more often than not they don't. These individuals may hold senior positions already, but certainly they will be on the lookout for impressive high-powered jobs. Some of them are even running big companies. These are the 'City Slackers': the people who know that it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.
City Slackers are not losers, in modern business they are the real winners, reaping rewards without enduring any of the real stresses of risk and return. Don't mistake them for the stereotype incompetents, the idlers who are the butt of office jokes, who arrive late, leave early and are commonly regarded as a waste of space. The City Slacker is more likely to be one of the more intelligent and respected members of the workforce
The culture of our service economy has provided City Slackers with the perfect environment to flourish. Thirty years ago, when most people were gainfully employed in the process of making or manufacturing things, performance was relatively easy to measure. We could see, for example, that Dave was working hard because he'd bolted X many cars together. And we could also see that British Leyland wasn't working well because Y many cars had been bolted together badly. We left behind the rigid, hierarchical structures of companies that make things and replaced them with ephemeral project teams that don't. This has brought flexibility, but also ambiguity; a lack of accountability and responsibility.
The company structures have changed, but performance in knowledge businesses is often measured by the same hidebound criteria. How do we identify accomplishment in the new economy of ideas, where there are no genuine rewards for endeavour alone? How do we recognize and remunerate those who make a genuine contribution and root out those who exploit the contemporary blurring of image and reality? Confronting the City Slacker is the biggest challenge facing British business.
City Slackers are costing us billions. In 2010, the Independent revealed that the UK government had wasted over £25 billion on IT projects that were not delivered, over budget or that simply unfit for their purpose. This depressing reality is entirely unnecessary; much of the cost is due not to the technology itself but to endemic bad management, poor working practices and an apparent inability to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Bob Diamond, Fred Goodwin and their ilk are testament to the fact that the culture of success without achievement goes right to the top. The prize for ruining a company like Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, or even the England football team, is usually a multi-million pound pay-off. How often do we hear about CEOs who have just announced record losses, accepting gilt-edged severance agreements or golden goodbyes? Today's company men and women have a new priority: themselves.
Steve McKevitt is author of Everything Now published by Route Publishing, priced £8.99.