Ashridge

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How to get seriously rich while failing in business

Bookcover

by Philip Sadler, Souvenir Press 2003.

A copy of this book can be ordered online via the Ashridge e-bookshop.

Abstract

A serious management writer brings wit to a consideration of the general unease at the way in which some senior managers behave. With satire and a reflective laugh on every page, he takes you through every step of the career of a "fat cat", made rich irrespective of the success of the business.

(Summarised by Edgar Wille in October 2003)

(There is no substitute for reading the book. A review, as distinct from a summary, highlights the general thrust of a book, suggests what its value may be and exercises the critic’s right to comment, both favourably and unfavourably on the content and approach. The author of the book must not be held responsible for any mistakes or misapprehensions on the part of the reviewer. If you want to enjoy some serious fun, this book will give you the opportunity, when you read it through, probably at one sitting).

Philip Sadler’s new career as satirist

Philip Sadler has written many books on management. It is difficult to get seriously rich from writing books, but I would hazard a guess that he will make more money out of this book than several of the others put together. Coming out in October 2003, it is an ideal stocking filler for a business weary dad this Christmas as he puts his feet up after a heavy Christmas lunch. It’s a long while since I had such a good laugh out of a business book, yet it is part of the art of satire to leave you wondering at times whether it is satire or reality!

Philip Sadler was our Chief Executive at Ashridge from 1969 - 1990. I knew him as a wise and accessible man, and appreciated his dry wit, but I never supposed that he might become a scintillating satirist. Yet this latest book reveals him in this guise. Jonathan Swift was a cutting satirist of human behaviour in Gulliver’s Travels. Philip Sadler matches him in this scathing exposure of the motivation of many ambitious business climbers. They attend business schools to learn the right things in the hope of applying them to get to the top of the tree. The author, usually indirectly, comments on a whole range of supposedly correct and noble career paths pursued for blatantly self seeking and money making objectives. Yet Philip never comes across, as does Swift, as bitter; he is, rather, a good humoured cynic as he holds up a mirror to our worst selves.

The problem with reviewing a book like this is that, as with a good novel, one does not want to give too much away of this portrait of the aspiring fat cat who wants to make as much money as possible before retiring with honour and a vast payout from a near bankrupt firm. However a few quotations may whet your appetite.

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A good serious laugh

My biggest laugh came right at the end where, without comment, the author presents the newspaper obituary of Sir Felix Catt KBE, where every phrase has a gentle innuendo. We read of Sir Felix that 'His achievements in business are well known. Focusing on shareholder value he took the helm at successive companies that were delivering mediocre performance and, by stripping out costs, closing plants, moving production overseas and reducing manpower, saw their stock prices rise sharply.' Then right at the end of the obituary we read 'He was a man of many parts. He liked to revisit his roots in Ireland where he liked nothing better than to join the boys in the back room for an evening of Irish folk music, playing with a Gaelic band. Few people in the City knew what an accomplished fiddler he was.' This might be considered a bit of corny humour, but in the context of the many cameos in the book, I found it compellingly funny. The book is excellent value at a laugh a page for a penny a page, the whole book costing one penny under ten pounds.

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Maxims for aspiring fat cats

The book starts with a flow chart which indicates the actions needed to pass through the various stages which will lead irrevocably to the aim of becoming seriously rich, irrespective of the long term success of the business. At this stage you are not quite sure whether the author has his tongue firmly stuck in his cheek.

This is followed by an analysis of the competences required to get where you want to get. Among them is, not surprisingly, the need for above average intelligence. But there is a caveat. You should not have intelligence that is too far above average. 'A PhD, for example, would be a grave handicap, as clever people are looked upon with grave suspicion in the business community.' You should be able to get on with people, but wryly our attention is drawn to the correct terminology for this - 'emotional intelligence'. Later on we are given a glossary of business speak to enable us to show our intelligence by using the correct terms.

Advice is offered on the right accents to cultivate and clothes to wear, with advice to women who would want to be slim and elegant fat cats as well. A specimen: 'Investment banking is a good choice for those with Scottish accents, since it is associated with prudence and integrity'.

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Early stages

You have to work hard in the early stages of your journey towards the top or at least you must be seen as working hard, by already being there when the top people arrive and there as late as they are. In the latter case if you have to slip out for a beer and a bite, 'use the well known techniques of leaving your jacket on the back of your chair'. An MBA is recommended, though it won’t really help you to get seriously rich if you take too much notice of some of the subjects - business ethics for example.

Satirical advice on how to handle your appraisal interview and meetings, attendance or chairing, is given in such a style, that you actually recognise amongst the satire some standard good advice. Friendship with colleagues is dangerous, as 'you will almost certainly have to trample on other people on the way and no one wants to do this to their real friends.' Advice such as 'always remember to stop speaking before people stop listening', is good advice anyway - again illustrating the skill shown in maintaining a degree of practical credibility in what otherwise is a satire. I also like another gem, which fell between satire and sound advice: 'It is better that people ask why you are NOT chief executive than that they ask why you ARE'.

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Well on the way

Similarly serious intent mingles with satire in the section where advice is given on how to combine the roles of CEO and Chairman, how to choose non executive directors, and how to control the Board. What kind of car to buy and which to avoid, receive amusing, yet serious, treatment along with a thoroughly cynical piece on what kind of second spouse you should choose, if you really want to get to the top.

Obviously sound advice is on how to avoid gaffes in public speaking, well illustrated by a few example of such frankness which can have serious results as Ratner found. 'This is the worst disaster to happen to the company since I was appointed chairman.' 'Forecasting is very difficult, especially in relation to the future.'

Advice is given on community activity, good works and corporate responsibility. Make sure your Annual Report has some kind of social and environmental audit. Sponsor some school events; they are inexpensive and divert attention from water pollution or something similar that might arise from your company activities. 'Make sure your notepaper, packaging materials and publications carry the message ‘manufactured from recycled materials’.'

When you are well on the way you need an entry in 'Who’s Who' and similar publications. You can be economical with the truth, but not tell outright lies. If you make up achievements, they could come back to haunt you later, but a bit of exaggeration is alright.

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Now you’ve arrived

I can imagine Philip Sadler writing with a straight face, but a twinkle in his eyes, when he gives advice on how to organise your agreement on remuneration with a new company. 'Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat' he says, 'so there is more than way of fattening it up'. Apparently the package is relatively modest in the UK compared with the US. The minimum UK multiple is 50 times the salary of the average employee. But of course there are share options which are many times more valuable than the salary and of course the pension arrangements. All these need to be carefully negotiated to avoid the embarrassment like that of Percy Barnevik (ABB) who had to give back ?24 million of his ?61 million annual pension.

Now is the time to plan for twenty years’ retirement, with enough income from non executive directorships and TV chat shows and free attendance at the opera, Formula One races and the Ryder Cup. Steps on the way to get a knighthood in the UK are also enumerated. (Philip Sadler is a CBE. So he has one more step to get his knighthood; perhaps this book will give him a helping hand.)

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Golden parachute

Behind the comments on how to prepare your golden parachute there is a hint of serious analysis. There is no judgment made, but one is left wondering whether boosting earnings in the short term in order to raise the share price is really benefiting business and society. When next I dip into Alfred Rappaport on shareholder value as the supreme aim of business, I shall bring to my reading a touch of cynicism from Philip Sadler’s portrait of the fat cat, making sure that the share price is high at the moment he brings off his final merger and goes while the going is good. Better still get your company acquired and get the maximum compensation as part of the deal. You mustn’t be put off by the surveys that suggest that only 30 per cent of mergers create value and 31 per cent destroy value. Acquirers often inherit anorexic companies which have been starved of cash, investment and skills to enable low costs to show temporarily high profits, but you have gone out in a blaze of personal glory.

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Golden twilight

The final decisions are about your golden twilight. Especially attractive is to milk your reputation to become a celebrity, with TV series, such as the successful run of Sir John Harvey-Jones with The Trouble Shooters. The lecture circuit, keynote speeches at major conferences, chairing a charity, having your autobiography written for you and so on - these can fill, say, 100 days a year. The rest of the time can be spent just enjoying yourself, with the executive jet you were able to keep as part of the compensation deal when you left your last firm as it was taken over. You will probably be able to afford an ocean going yacht as well.

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Serious intent

I was fascinated by the serious undercurrent in this book which strengthens a gut feeling that there must be something wrong with a set up which focuses on short term gain at the expense of long term development and which, while paying lip service to corporate responsibility, goes beyond reasonable profit to milk the system, instead of returning something to Society.

By presenting decadent human career ambition as a worthy function of business life Philip Sadler debunks it thoroughly. It could even persuade some young men to embark on a path of more real value to society. In the long run they might also get more out of it in terms of satisfaction, and more than enough money to be 'unseriously' rich.

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Tailpiece

As to Philip himself, he too is preparing for his golden twilight. His pre publication press release carries the message: 'This is his first book of, someone ambitious may consider, career advice.'

The illustrations by John Jensen, beautifully capture the spirit of a book which is described on the cover, as a humorous manual of one-upmanship in business to be ignored at your peril!

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