MANAGEMENT HISTORY Exit the ’90s – With very little leadership in sight

By the mid 1990s about the only constant in business was constant change. As Ian Howard, management and computer consultant noted in Management’s May 1995 issue: “Change is an escalating variable in today’s marketplace. Customers are now in charge and if they don’t like an organisation’s goods and services, they’ll go elsewhere. Competition is endemic and pervasive.”
Customers might have been paramount, but some executives were hypnotised by Silicon Valley; the internet’s potential inspired scores of ill-prepared venture capital start-ups over-subscribed by eager, gullible investors, and the unlikeliest of companies believed an ‘internet strategy’ would transform business and the bottom line. Managers would soon be arriving early and leaving late to cope with the emails from around the world – and the colleague in the very next office. E-commerce was going to be E-normous. The world was everybody’s oyster as the intranet and extranet sent information around the office and the globe faster than the proverbial speeding bullet. There was, though, tendency to forget that instant communication is only as useful as the quality of the information and ideas communicated.
The speed of change in companies was not slackening. In September 1995, Brian Shaw, PA Consulting’s business transformation manager, said: “Already many organisations are becoming delayered… and managers are beginning to devote more time to building structures that support customer focus. Such structures increasingly will be around informal relationships, will emphasise the management of information and will make use of converging technologies.” ‘Flexible’ organisations had arrived with the ‘virtual’ organisation close behind.
“The half-life of management ideas these days is six months,” said NZIM Auckland general manager Penny de Valk late in 1995 – the organisation’s 50th year as management training provider. “There is lot of churning in organisations.”
The ‘learning organisation’, ‘customer care focus’, ‘transformation’: there was no decline in the number of management fads and fancies. As Management’s sometimes acerbic ‘Backchat’ column put it in September 1997: “The one thing they all have in common is sensible idea or two dressed up in dollops of gobbledegook and mystique and delivered, resplendent with acronym, to naively trusting managerial class endlessly seeking quick fix to declining market share, lousy employee relations or bottom line that doesn’t bottom out.”
One popular ‘how to’ book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was to spawn numerically challenging avalanche of print through the closing years of the 1990s. Among the more popular: 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work, The 8 Practices of Exceptional Companies, 75 Cage Rattling Questions, 201 Ways to Say No Gracefully, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and 1001 Ways to Energize Employees.
These were roller-coaster years for some prominent business people. From December 1995 profile: “Then it all came unstuck for Graeme Hart, the untutored kid from the wrong side of the tracks who left Mt Roskill Grammar at the age of 17 and launched one-man business as truckie. bold play into the hard Aussie business of food retailing [Foodland Associated] fell foul of that country’s highly political way of doing business. Next Whitcoulls disappointed those same dazzled shareholders by downgrading its own profit forecasts… not once, but twice.” Now, of course, we know Hart bounced back with vengeance.
In February 1996, business leaders were asked to rate Don Brash, Reserve Bank governor. Most were favourably impressed with his management of the nation’s fortunes. Predictably Sir Robert Jones differed: “Brash… has never indicated any visionary aptitude. His outlook reflected by his utterances reflects his personal background. It is clinical and sterile and reveals an inability to recognise economics as social science about human behaviour rather than as branch of accountancy as he seems to perceive it.” Nearly decade later, some might think Sir Robert surprisingly perceptive.
In both the private and public sectors, managers were having to adapt to working environment in which contracting, teleworking, self-employment and smaller organisations were commonplace. major Management series ‘The Way Ahead’, which ran in 1996/97, looked towards 2001, the business world it envisaged already appearing in both reality and statistics. “The trends that will shape work in 2001 are largely with us today,” wrote Anna Smith. “We are familiar with the idea of network or virtual organisations which farm out all but their core activities to mother companies or individuals. We know that jobs no longer last lifetime and the very word ‘job’ is becoming misnomer. And we are getting used to the idea that it’s not your job title that matters but what you know how to do.”
Kerr Inkson, professor of management studies, made the point that career planning would have to be seen very differently. “It becomes matter of accumulating competencies on job-by-job basis and making sure that you’re continuing to keep up-to-date and the competencies you’re accumulating are relevant outside the organisation you’re working for.” The number of self-employed rose 17 percent between 1987 and 1995 and the number of businesses employing fewer than 20 people increased by 24 percent during the same period.
Executive leasing, another sign of the times, was on the rise. Management reported in August 1998: “Call them what you will – leased executives, contract professionals, interim managers – the concept of purely skills-based work, where the individual creates his own portfolio of employment (à la Charles Handy) is hot item in New Zealand management circles, particularly in the current economic environment.”
Management was not immune to change either. Carroll du Chateau succeeded Tracey Strange as editor in July 1992, picked up the publication’s fifth ‘best business publication’ citation at the 1996 Qantas Media Awards, and handed over to Sherrill Tapsell in July 1997.
Private sector management had its challenges, but the public health sector, with six of the country’s 23 CHE chief executives resigning or not renewing their contracts over 12-month period, was even tougher. As Selwyn Parker wrote in March 1996: “If there were competition to find the toughest, most soul-destroying, most unpopular, most embattled and – relative to the difficulties – most underpaid management job in New Zealand right now, the winner would almost certainly be any chief executive of Crown Health Enterprise.”
The stress of top management positions – and the management of stress – remained regular features. Paul Smith wrote in March 1998: “The 1990s are to the 1980s what the confessional is to the sin. If there was bonfire of the vanities during the previous decade, the current one represents atonement through the compulsion to overwork. That occupational fervour has been accompanied by downsizing, globalisation, ever present communications technology and vastly increased business travel. All of them have hastened the pace of corporate life in what was once meant to be the Leisure Era. In fact, as the millennium approaches, average Americans are working 160 hours longer each year than they did 20 years ago.”
One reaction – and growing trend in the late 1990s – was personal ‘downsizing’ by choice. As Management put it in October 1999: “It is called ‘downshifting’ or even ‘voluntary simplicity’. Unlike the downsized and the dispossessed, there is usually an element of choice for the downshifting executive. It is the conscious, premeditated decision to jump off the corporate treadmill, well before retirement looms, to live more fulfilling life, albeit without title, status or expenses account.”
Leadership, or the lack of it, remained an enduring theme. Management’s ‘Business of Leadership’ series began in November 1997 on less than optimistic note: “Consensus on management issues is rare. O

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