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  1. Long reads
19 February 2001

Why Brits prefer foreign bosses

Martin Vander Weyer detects a loss of national confidence behind our growing practice of filling top

By Martin Vander Weyer

What special quality does Bob Kiley share with Luc Vandevelde, Matthew Barrett, Clara Furse, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Pierre-Yves Gerbeau? Each of them was appointed to manage a crisis-torn feature of British national life: respectively London Underground, Marks & Spencer, Barclays Bank, the London Stock Exchange, the England football team and the Millennium Dome. They range widely in age and experience, from service in the US Central Intelligence Agency for the 63-year-old Kiley to a spell as an international ice-hockey star for the 35-year-old Gerbeau. But they have one important thing in common: they are not British.

It is a curious paradox that a nation which remains resolutely chauvinistic in some respects should suffer a collapse of self-confidence when it comes to picking managers. We still think of ourselves as producing the world’s best fighting soldiers; we nurture the wisest judges and the most versatile film actors; we remain proud of our architects, scientists, oarsmen and yachtswomen. But when it comes to picking people to run high-profile businesses and projects that have run into trouble, we call for Johnny Foreigner every time.

Why should that be so? There was a time, not long ago, when we were good at managing everything from ceremonial fireworks displays to the entire workings of the Hong Kong government. Brits were unflappable, incorruptible, authoritative, good at dealing with nuts and bolts: no challenge was too big, no detail too small. We were the nation that produced Sir Alf Ramsey, the world-beating football manager, and Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, the role model of central bank governors the world over, and the admirable Crichton, the butler who took charge of his desert island with such natural aplomb.

But we seem to have lost all that, or at least we think we have. To be a top-class manager requires stamina, judgement, leadership and a grasp of the minutiae of the project in hand, but today’s British candidates rarely measure up.

Those of a right-wing persuasion might say that the moral fibre and attention span of the generation now eligible for top jobs were sapped by being formed in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades when teachers ceased to demand decent classroom standards, industrial bosses gave up the struggle against union militants, and no one had any economic incentive to strive for excellence. They might go on to say that serious managers are less willing to offer themselves for jobs in the public eye today because the Blairite demands of focus groups and political correctness are too constraining. The left might then retort that the roots of the trouble lay in the example set in the previous generation by a decaying officer class that believed it had a God-given right to command; and that the problem today is the short-termist greed which makes clever people want to cut and run with their bonus cheques, rather than commit themselves to difficult long-term projects.

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But both sides might agree that the British education system was never particularly well designed to produce top managers in the first place. Too many bright people, according to this theory, pursue degree courses in literature or history, which tell them little about the real world. Many Americans point out that we do not treat management itself as a science akin to engineering, and that Britain’s poor track record is a reflection of the relatively small numbers of British managers who hold the MBA qualification – a prerequisite for reaching the upper strata of US corporations.

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Have we become too narrow to be top-class managers in the modern world? British clearing banks, for example, used to be criticised for promoting executives who had joined as school-leavers and were judged to lack the sophistication and breadth required to run global operations in fast-changing markets. But the two most successful British bankers of recent years, Sir Brian Pitman of Lloyds TSB and Sir William Purves of HSBC, finished their education at Cheltenham Grammar and Kelso High School respectively.

As for the value of an MBA, most British personnel directors would regard it as an opportunity for up-and-coming executives to take a refreshing mid-career break, do some useful networking and enlarge their vocabulary, but not as the key to releasing latent powers of front-rank leadership. Some would argue that what we need is a different American attribute, usually seen at its most vivid in movies such as Airport and Earthquake: the habit of tackling management problems with cigar-chewing, profanity-scattering aggression, as though they were military skirmishes. The bite that Bob Kiley looks capable of bringing to London Underground may owe something to his time at Harvard Business School – but it will owe a lot more to his eight years of experience as chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority, not only because he knows what he is doing but, crucially, because the media and the public believe that he knows what he is doing.

“Management? It’s all about confidence and trust,” Ron Manager, The Fast Show‘s celebrated soccer pundit, might readily opine. And the core problem with many British managers today is not that they lack the talents of their predecessors, but that the press and stock-market analysts have destroyed the public’s confidence in them to such an extent that it is impossible for them to do an effective job.

Thus did soccer journalists write off the chances of any native-born football manager succeeding Kevin Keegan as England’s coach – and then gave vent to traditional tabloid xenophobia when the Football Association yielded to pressure and gave the job to Sven-Goran Eriksson. Similarly, an unknown Belgian, Luc Vandevelde, had to be parachuted in last year as executive chairman of the tottering Marks & Spencer, while the London Stock Exchange – until recently a bastion of English male chauvinism – has just appointed a Dutch woman, Clara Furse, as its new chief.

Whether the pressure for these foreign appointments comes from journalists or, in the case of public companies, from stock-market analysts, it is not based on inside knowledge of the shortlist of candidates, but on the simple urge for a headline-making story. For analysts, that means finding something new to say to institutional investors about the company concerned which will generate turnover in the company’s shares – and profits for the analyst’s firm and bonuses for the analyst. Meanwhile, board directors whose own remuneration is tied up in stock options must be tempted to vote for the candidate whose funny foreign name will do most to boost the share price. The market loves a Yank (Marjorie Scardino of Pearson) or an Irishman (Niall FitzGerald of Unilever); and Sir John Browne of BP Amoco likes to point out that his mother is Hungarian.

And so we go on importing our bosses, and devaluing our native talents. As the Daily Telegraph lamented on the day of Eriksson’s appointment, even the headmaster of Eton is a New Zealander, while the only top management job which seems certain to remain in British hands is that of Archbishop of Canterbury. Or is it? Even now, one suspects, headhunters are trawling the globe for that glamorous Commonwealth prelate whose name might boost the Church’s fading stock . . .

Martin Vander Weyer’s Falling Eagle: the decline of Barclays Bank is published by Phoenix (£8.99)