In a corporate world of acquisitions where companies are being traded like baseball cards, chief executives are allowed to allocate themselves literally millions of dollars of their firms' money to "golden parachutes": financial bailouts for the executives themselves.
Why do companies allow, even encourage, these managers to take such financial care of themselves even as the companies they run are being gobbled up like power dots in Pac-Man? What makes these executives so valuable to these companies that management is willing to give them policies insuring their compensation even in the event of the death of the company as a unique institution?
A new book by Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter provides some answers to those questions, and at the same time presents the first comprehensive look at a new breed of general managers trying to steer their companies through an increasingly complex maze of business.
"The General Managers" (The Free Press, 1982) traces the lives and actions of 15 general managers from a cross-section of American business, including everything from banking and retailing to hi-tech companies.
And the book effectively shatters some of the myths of general management, many of which are still clung to at Harvard. Most notable, for example, is the observation that general management is a skill transferable easily from one kind of business to another. Indeed, none of the 15 managers studied would qualify as a so-called "professional manager."
In fact, the managers studied had spent 90 percent of their business lives in the same industry, and 80 percent of their careers with the same company.
"Nevertheless," Kotter writes, "this 'not professional' behavior worked, and it worked for reasons that are easy to see if one has a realistic understanding of the complex nature of GM jobs today."
He points out that the new managers have developed a specialized set of skills and personal relationships necessary to keep in touch with companies that may be growing too large for one person to control. He refers to a complex procedure of "networking" -- a system of personal relationships with underlings that a general manager must use to stay in touch with the company from the corporate suite.
Kotter's data suggests that while knowledge of so-called general management techniques is important, "much more is involved in the production of effective executive behavior.
"A large number of motivational, temperamental, interpersonal, and other personal characteristics are important;" he writes, "experiences, literally starting from birth, are important; some degree of specialization, commitment, and fit with the local environment is important; complex, subtle and informal behavior are important. All of this is so because of the very nature of executive jobs today."
In another interesting segment, Kotter contends that neither side of the controversy over whether a great manager is "born" or "made" accurately reflects reality. "Successful GM's appear to have been both 'born' to circumstances favorable to the acquisition of GM characteristics and then 'made' through a series of events over a period of decades," writes Kotter.
In examining the early lives of those who became top executives, Kotter has drawn a profile of the typical general manager.
He "was raised in an upwardly mobile, middle-class family which included siblings," writes Kotter. "The parents, both of whom were at home while he was growing up, had some college education, and the father was usually in business or was a manager in a nonbusiness situation."
Our typical GM was a student leader in high school and college, where he concentrated on business or related fields, and quickly thereafter settled into an industry and a company, said Kotter. "He moved up the hierarchy in one (or two) functions, changed jobs every two or three years, established a strong record of successes, and was promoted into his first general management job in his late thirties."
The managers he studied did not rise by changing companies often: "It was at least partially through long tenure in a particular situation that they were able to become incredibly knowledgeable about that situation and were able to develop such a large number of good working relationships with other people involved in that situation."
This well-documented and thorough study is must-reading for board members and owners of companies looking for leaders. It makes the entire business of "head-hunting" and "nationwide searching" for top managers seem extremely risky business.
It is also a valuable resource book for aspiring general managers. It highlights the reasons behind the success of various management styles, and is a powerful argument on the need for young managers to weigh the future value of staying in the company or industry they are now in rather than jumping from company to company as each new attractive offer comes along.
This is the latest, and most relevant, case study in how to succeed as a manager in today's complex corporate world.