The Hollywood Boss is No Work of Fiction

My Financial Times column 09/27/10
The Hollywood boss is no work of fiction

By Philip Delves Broughton

In Money Never Sleeps, the just released sequel to Wall Street, Gordon Gekko tells us that “idealism kills deals”. It is the most pungent line in the film, and a bracing rejoinder to anyone who argues that business is about “doing well by doing good”. In fact, the whole film, like the original, is a perverse homage to appalling behaviour.

But whereas Gekko is fictional, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is the all-too-real central character in The Social Network, the other business world blockbuster of the autumn. Mr Zuckerberg is not just portrayed as ambitious, a reasonable trait in the founder of a start-up, but also as vengeful, vicious, duplicitous and devoid of even the most basic social skills.

Interviewed by Oprah Winfrey last week, Mr Zuckerberg said of the film: “A lot of it is fiction, but even the film-makers will say that. They’re building a good story. This is my life, I know it’s not that dramatic. The last six years have been a lot of coding and focus and hard work. But maybe it will be fun to remember it as partying and all this crazy drama.”

It is a story we have seen before among the technology greats of the past 30 years. The young Bill Gates, by most accounts, was a similar kind of nightmare, screaming at his staff and elbowing aggressively past rivals as he built Microsoft.

When he founded Apple, Steve Jobs was said to push his developers to work ungodly hours and to treat both colleagues and competitors with contempt.

And yet how much of this makes it into the management books? Where is the guru who tells us that the way to get the most out of an organisation is to ratchet up the pressure until everyone is desperate and frazzled? And then to run psychological rings round them?

Why is it left to Hollywood to tell us what we already know, that those who succeed in business are not always the most likable people? That to succeed on the epic scale of a Zuckerberg, Gates or Gekko, may require some deeply unpalatable traits?

I once heard Steve Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group, talk about the importance of competitiveness in his business. To win in private equity, you really have to hustle. Fair enough.

But then came the incident last month, when he compared President Barack Obama’s threats to raise taxes on private equity investments to “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939”. He has since apologised but when a multibillionaire testily compares a tax rise to the second world war, that spirit of competitiveness has evidently gone too far.

But what is the ordinary manager to make of it all? There you sit in a negotiation seminar learning about creating “win-win” situations, while part of you suspects that, as one corporate lawyer once put it to me, “the only win-win situation is one where the same person wins twice”.

There you are downloading the latest rules on diversity and sexual harassment, while Mr Zuckerberg, whose last venture before Facebook was a website that invited users to rank female students at Harvard by physical attractiveness, rockets past towards billions.

In Hardball: Are Your Playing to Play or Playing to Win?, one of the few books to address this issue of business’s dark side, George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer, two consultants at Boston Consulting Group, wrote: “Winners in business play rough and don’t apologise.” They argued that hardball is not about breaking the law or cheating, but about relentless competition, bordering on brutality, and absolute clarity of purpose. It is certainly not about “people skills”.

The Hardball way lists five “fundamental behaviours of winning”: “focus relentlessly on competitive advantage”; “strive for extreme competitive advantage”, don’t be happy just being better at something, but try to be much, much better; “avoid attacking directly”, because unless you have overwhelming force, you are better off being sneaky; “exploit people’s will to win”, by motivating them to become slavering, hyper-competitive beasts; and “know the caution zone”, play to the edges of the pitch, but not beyond.

They then list five strategies to be deployed in “bursts of ruthless intensity”. These are: “devastate rivals’ profit sanctuaries”; “plagiarise with pride”; “deceive the competition”; “unleash massive and overwhelming force” once you have it; and “raise competitors’ costs”, the final turn of the ratchet after you have destroyed their profits, copied, tricked and beaten them unconscious.

“Hardball is tough, not sadistic,” they write. “Yes, you want rivals to squirm, but not so visibly that you are viewed as a bully. In fact, you want the people in your world – the same ones you demand straight answers from – to cheer you on. And many of them will, as they share the riches your strategies generate.”

Fail at hardball, or its more extreme derivations, and you may not even have the consolation of having fought a decent fight. But succeed, and you will have all the resources in the world to buy your way to redemption – however Hollywood depicts you.


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