Public don’t buy profit-is-all image

I always thought the reason why business books are so bad is that there is no fact of business life so banal that the author will feel can be safely ignored. Instead, self-evident insights that would not tax the intelligence of a three-year-old are garlanded with clichés and spread over three pages. At the end of this, the facts remain banal and the reader is comatose.

There’s a deeper explanation though, which is that no book dare tell the truth about business. Authors create a fantasy world where theory and strategy are the food of angels but execution is ignored. In this fantasy world, it is taken for granted that companies exist to maximise profits or shareholder value, whereas the reality is that profit is almost never on the agenda.

The upper echelons of companies are about power and politics, turf wars, influence and the remorseless pursuit of personal advantage – interspersed with a terror of being found out. Think of it as little boys’ games with added testosterone. Profit, if it exists, is a by-product.

As journalist Lucy Kellaway pointed out in Monday’s Financial Times, companies do not even like intelligent people. They like pushy, driven, ruthless people with lots of common sense. Intelligent people are a nuisance. Companies say they want managers to think outside the box and to challenge the established view, but those who do this get accused of making waves and are, almost by definition, not team players.

I suspect that this is also why the public image of business and businessmen is so poor. It is a rule of successful long-term PR that however spun the message, it has to be rooted in the truth. For a generation, business leaders have been peddling the perception of hard-working leaders selflessly pursuing profit for the greater good of all. The public don’t buy it because it does not ring true.

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