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Why The Shareholder Should Not Be At The Top of the Food Chain

Earlier this week I read yet another article about the imminent demise of Yahoo's leadership team due to a letter from an activist shareholder group - who in this case owns less than 1% of Yahoo. OK, 1% of a multi billion dollar company may well be more than I'll ever earn in several lifetimes, but it's still a very small stake-holding compared to all the other investors.

What struck me was how such a tiny stakeholder thought it had the right to make such demands on a business and why, if it was so unhappy with the business why it simply didn't divest itself of its stake?

(Picture borrowed from Kristen Maxwell Texas Enterprise)

When I first started working, there was a very clear mantra that was drummed into my head with remorseless frequency. The shareholder is the king of the jungle - the only reason you are in business is to make money and return the investments of the shareholders. Nothing else matters - not even the customer, and especially not the employees.

That always seemed to me to be a bit of a perverse way of looking at the world, but everybody was saying the same thing, so it had to be right - and I was a newbie and at the very bottom of the food chain, so what did I know? But the concept has nagged at me right through my working life like a dull tooth ache that won't quite go away completely, and occasionally rears up and hurts like heck.

In my world I always had the naive perspective that if you treated your staff with dignity and respect they would work their socks off to please the customer (and their managers). The customers would increase their support for the company with increased spending and referrals, and the benefits would be realised by the executives, and ultimately the shareholders. A positive reinforcement loop if every I saw one!

Finally, it appears that I'm not alone in that ridiculous notion. A reasonably successful businessman called Richard Branson talked about the concept in a recent interview. Peter Leeson speaks from the same perspective in his book Orchestrated Knowledge

"Unfortunately, in recent years, many management teams have started believing that they work for the shareholders rather than the clients"

and then suggests that shareholders are often only ever interested in short term speculation (usually with each other) and rarely bring any real value to the company.

The downside of raising the importance of the shareholder above everyone else is that, ultimately, people start equating the value of stock with the quality and viability of the business (look no further than Apple and the performance of its stock which is completely divorced from the profitability of the business and totally at the mercy of Wall Street analysts who live in a completely alternative reality distortion field). Once you start people thinking there are potential risks to the future of the business, you set a negative feedback loop in progress and the vicious downward spiral begins.

Meanwhile, global IT giants like HPE and IBM continue to treat their people like mediaeval serfs, constantly under threat of redundancy, and being squeezed of every ounce of loyalty left in them by one-dimensional strategies which are focused purely on cutting costs, rather than improving the business (and their customer service).

The relentless march towards corporate capitalism will be our downfall and the balance needs to be  redressed towards putting real people first, namely employees and customers. After all, what's the point of empowering people by creating agile environments and then making them redundant simply to generate more money for people who can't actually do anything to make the business better?!





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