The Dark Side of Shareholder Value: Its impact on the very people it’s designed to benefit

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Our industry requires a shift in mindset from providers, buyers, AND investors. We need to rethink shareholder value and the integral link it has with the very element it seems to be bent on eliminating – people. In a thought-provoking post, my colleague Phil Fersht called out the fact we are in the people elimination business, wondering how it got so bad. My take: there are two key aspects in this debate; the way we view talent and the (unintended) consequences of decades of shareholder value doctrine.

The importance of talent for the future of services

Buyers need to deal with their cost reduction obsession and recognize talent is still the differentiating factor for their business success – and will be for the foreseeable future. Domain expertise, talent, and local people are critical components of the value service providers produce. This is true in any industry, but for example in oil & gas and the utility industry, the service providers that are perceived as delivering the most value by buyers are those that invest in talent, local people with deep industry expertise, and innovation prowess. These folks are not the cheapest, but bring exponentially more insight and impact on results. Buyers have shared ample examples of service providers that help them tackle the sticky industry problems by bringing the talents of industry experts, data scientists, technology experts and the client’s domain experts together. This teaming leads to multidisciplinary cross-pollination to design and deliver solutions that combine technology, industrial process and ideas and proven concepts from other industries.

We are on the verge of a shift in the way we work, and the outcomes we produce

The future value delivered by the outsourcing industry won’t be people running the accounts payable process, but in knowledge-intensive, decision-rich processes. You need the talent to make the technology work effectively – to drive the results and business outcomes. If we again look at the oil and gas and utility industry, organizations are starting to recognize the talent they need to compete in the new economy aren’t smitten with the work and reputations of the oil & gas industry or utilities. The reality is that the competition for data scientists, for instance, is not Shell versus Exxon Mobil, but Exxon Mobil versus the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook and a host of start-ups. Service providers can offer more interesting career paths and are a source of talent that can plug the quantitative and qualitative skills gap these industries face. Long story short; focusing on talent, continuous education and business value creation is the viable path forward for service providers. 

The creed of shareholder value and its disconnect from reality

Too many people are still worshipping the totem of shareholder value, a theoretic and flawed notion from its conception. We are in a slow transition to more stakeholder value focus, more fitting our interdependent world that needs more cohesion and inclusiveness.

Ever since the invention of the term shareholder value, it was adopted as the dominant discourse by Wall Street and institutional investors. It, among other factors, has led to a short-term, myopic circus that reduces the horizon of executives to 90 days, de-humanizing our enterprises. It’s a fact that we are richer than ever before and there is less sickness, famine, and war (you wouldn’t say it if you watch the news). But there are still large swaths of the world struggling to improve the standard of living. And even in the world’s richest countries, large groups of people don’t feel better off. They feel left behind, disenfranchised and powerless. This is about half the population in countries like the US, the UK and France, evidence Brexit, Trump and Marine Le Pen’s rise. 

We need to go full circle on shareholder value
Coming back to shareholder value; it’s time to go full circle. Take a minute to think who is behind the vast pools of capital institutional investors manage… It’s us, the people saving money for their pensions. Shareholder value is a construct that served the money managing industry well but forgot to look at the wider interests of the actual owners of the money…. those shareholders are also your employees. Shareholders are not the clever folks on Wall Street, they are the representatives of the ‘normal people’ in your neighborhood and your company, the people who save their money in a pension fund or 401k.

If you take a narrow interpretation of ‘fiduciary duty,’ you can get away with the fallacy that returns on investment is the only metric of interest. But what if you fail to let that money you invest create prosperity for the people you invest it for in their real life? If your addiction to dividends and higher share prices is ruining the jobs of your future beneficiaries? It is time to bring the financial economy and the real economy closer together. 

We can’t ignore the externalities of business any longer. People elimination is one of the challenging externalities that is a short-term lever executive in our industry seem to see as the inevitable answer to competitive pressures and new technologies (RPA, AI). 

The Bottom Line – Taking social responsibility seriously is a critical and foundational aspect of doing business anno 2017

Only ten years ago, when I was doing research about investment preferences of pension fund beneficiaries and their ability to influence pension fund investment policy, corporate social responsibility and socially responsible investing were a theoretic discussion, often painted as the domain of idealistic, money-hating tree huggers. Not anymore. Since the 2008 financial crisis, everyone understands CSR is a real thing, a source of durable value creation, competitive advantage and not a fad you only use as window dressing. CSR has come a long way since. It’s time for service providers and buyers, along with governments, to come up with credible policies to make sure talent is up for the new tasks at hand, to truly augment people with the new technologies instead of using this as an excuse for the next round of layoffs.

Posted in : global-workforce-and-talent

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