Kellaway on years of corporate nonsense
FT columnist Lucy Kellaway has been writing on the strange and indecipherable language of chief executives and their companies for over 20 years. She looks back at a career of deriding the hot air and asks: has it made any difference?
Filmed by Steve Ager and Nicola Stansfield. Edited by Alessia Giustiniano. Produced by Seb Morton-Clark.
For the last quarter of a century on the FT, I've been writing articles that take the piss out of the way that managers talk. Someone asked me the other day how much effect I thought I'd had. The honest answer to this is that I've had no effect at all. While I've been writing these articles, things have gone on and on getting worse.
And I've just done a little bit of digging in the archive, and the first example that I can find of me writing one of these pieces was back in 1994. And I wrote something saying that things had got so bad that the way that managers spoke was so ugly that there would have to be a correction. Things would have to start getting better.
But what were the words back then that I really objected to? Well, they were global, downsize, and market place. And even more than that, I objected to the way that people talked about being 110% committed to something, hating the mathematical nonsense of it all.
But what an innocent time that now seems when things have truly got so much worse. I mean, the other day I was sent something written by an entrepreneur in his blog where he declared he was a million percent committed. So that really is inflation for you. So it's not only that things have got worse in aggregate, some of the particular managers who I've singled out over the years have gone on and on getting worse despite my taunts.
Now nobody has provided me with more column fodder over the years than Howard Schultz at Starbucks, but his latest was this. He described Starbucks Roasteries as delivering, "an immersive, ultra-premium coffee-forward experience." So in one short phrase, the only OK word was "an".
But I don't actually think this means that my entire life's work has been a failure. The people who talk bullshit will go on doing that because it doesn't do them any harm, and this is the most depressing thing. Howard Schultz has done perfectly nicely, more than perfectly nicely in talking this way. He's changed the whole way that half the world drinks, slurping out of those awful cups with the plastic lids. And he's amassed a fortune of about $3 billion, so it clearly hasn't hurt him.
But the good I think I have done is to those few of us who don't talk this way, and we like to mock the people who do. So I think to them, I've delivered, as they would say, quite a service. So what are the best examples? Well the field in which bullshit talkers excel is when euphemism is called for. And euphemism is never called for quite so much as when companies sack people.
Just the other day, I came up with a superb example from a company that delivers sustainability solutions. Now it was getting rid of some people, and it described it like this. It said, "Its company was going to the gym to engage in cell renewal," which is really quite a nice way of getting rid of people, I think. But not as good as my favourite.
My favourite example came from HSBC a few years ago. And it said it was getting rid of some relationship managers, but it wasn't getting rid of them, it was demising them. Now there's a particular genius to this. I mean the whole point of a euphemism is you take something that's horrible, and you make it sound better. But HSBC had got into such a tangle that it had taken something that was horrible, i.e. taking away people's jobs, and made it sound as if it was actually killing them.
My other favourite, which maybe I like even more than HSBC, is EY, which got rid of some of its partners recently, sent an email around to everyone else saying, "We look forward to strengthening our alumni network." But as well as laughing at companies, it's more fun to laugh at individuals. So I just want to end with three examples. They're all very, very different, but I think you'll agree, in their separate ways, they're brilliant.
The first is from someone you may not have heard of. He's called Rob Stone. He's CEO of a US advertising agency called Cornerstone. His goes like this, "As brands build out a world footprint, they look for a no-holds-barred global POV that's always been part of our wheelhouse." Well that's pretty good. That is a four-way mixed metaphor. A hell of a lot of hot air that says nothing at all.
Possibly though, better still, is Angela Ahrendts. This is when she was CEO of Burberry, and she wrote this in the company's annual report. "In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors." I have shown that to all sorts of business people over the years and ask them what they think it means. I've never had an answer, and I've never understood why a company that makes raincoats goes on quite so much about doors.
Finally though, this is the most bullshitty example I've ever, ever come across. And what's so interesting about it is that there are no fancy words or anything, but I hope you will agree with me. It's from John Chambers when he was CEO of Cisco. He sent out an email to all of his people. It began, "Team" and it ended, "We'll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future." The hubris of that is quite something. And, actually, since then, I think the planet has been reaching the future pretty nicely without the help of Cisco.