Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The pressures of being a business leader

On hindsight, the surprise is that it hasn't happened more often. Last week Pierre Wauthier, the Chief Financial Officer of Zurich Insurance, tragically committed suicide. This starkly illustrates the unbelievable pressures top business executives function under.

Zurich Insurance is one of the top insurance companies in the world. Recently, it has been going through a bad patch, although by no means disastrous. The CFO is often the one required to stand up before investors to explain results and is invariably the target of criticism and calls to be sacked. The circumstances behind Mr Wauthier's unfortunate demise are not fully clear, but it is inconceivable that work pressures did not play a part. His widow has certainly hinted that Josef Ackermann, the Chairman of Zurich bore some responsibility. Ackermann denied any such thing but promptly resigned as Chairman.

Only a certain breed of individuals reach the top of the business world. A masochist streak, politely termed as "the killer instinct" is one of the pre requisite qualities. Perhaps such individuals also possess tremendous resilience - maybe one of the reasons why we don't witness such unfortunate events more often. Otherwise the tremendous pressures exerted on those  who have a Chief prefixed to their title can drive more normal human beings around the bend.

Take the case of a CFO. He has some (maybe even a lot) of influence on the company, but doesn't really run it. The CEO and the heads of the component businesses are the ones who really run the company and whose actions determine the financial results. And yet it is the CFO who is the public face of the company to the financial community - investors, lenders, markets and the like. Every quarter he has to forecast and deliver results - for which I would argue that he has only limited influence. The average tenure of a CFO has come down to between 4 and 5 years.

You may argue that he (it is rarely a she) is paid handsomely for all this, but trust me, after a point money s not the chief motivator. Despite the greed, many of this lot do this for the fame , prestige, power and the like. We must remember that they are also human beings like you and me. Sometimes you have to wonder if the pressure is worth it.

The issue of pressure is , of course, applicable at all levels in an organisation. The insane hours, the 24 hours work day demanded by globalisation, the physical exhaustion of travel all contribute to a different work spot than what it was even 20 years ago.  In this forum , we have talked often of the social contract of organisations with society. There is also the familial contract and the personal contract which is under immense strain. Something for sociologists to ponder about.

Meanwhile a moment in mourning for Wauthier and words of condolence to the family would be appropriate.

16 comments:

  1. Niraj Dhupia3/9/13

    Sorry to learn about Zurich Insurance CFO's demise :(
    You have put it very aptly. The pressure, particularly at the top, is way too much and at times begs the question whether it is worth it at all. Obviously, there is no limit to money and fame earned, but many of us would prefer a quieter lesser known peaceful life with family.

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  2. He is baaaaaaaaaaaack!!!! ;)

    Yes, tremendous pressure, I would think. Whether it is this CFO story, or the Rajaratnam/Gupta story, or the Enron one, the pressure to perform at some imagined level can lead some to do awful things, even to the extent of taking one's own life, when the alternative is so obvious and simple to merely step away from that context.

    There are very few aspects of life that are within our control and certainly this is one--it is not really all that difficult, and should never be all that difficult, for an individual to decide how many hours in a day, and the days in a month, ought to be spent on chasing that money, fame, power, and everything else as one becomes a grand poobah. Yet again, I will quote Bill Watterson:
    "In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth."

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  3. @Niraj - That balance is not easy to achieve Niraj. Its ever elusive and always prone to second guessing . What if ..... ?

    @sriram - Yes, for good or bad, I'm back ! For the types of individuals who rise to the top, its not an easy choice Sriram. Not everybody can consciously decide to step back. After all its against nature. The alpha male of the pride will defend his position to death - that's the order of nature. Bill Wattterson is absolutely right.

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  4. Ramesh - nice to see you back in action, after a gaaaap that was not pleasing at all :)

    No doubt, there is immense pressure on top business leaders and yes, stakes are very high too. However, if it takes one to the level of suicide, then there is indeed something to ponder about. Having said this though, the thought of suicide comes when there is no will to see tomorrow and it can occur to anyone across any levels.

    Infact precisely for the reason that you mentioned, we don't witness such cases more often.

    Only if we the humans can think less of receiving, more of forgiving and excess of giving!

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  5. Well, my belief is that you are still a rat even when you win the rat race. Sometimes it's worthwhile taking stock of the madness that the corporate world inflicts upon you in the form of exhausting travel, inane meetings, calories piled up at client dinners, constantly wearing a shied (especially on your back) to prevent daggers and knives being forced into you. It is worthwhile to quietly fade away in some remote part of the world growing coriander and plums like I do! (But it is always better to contemplate life sitting in a Mercedes rather than in a Nano!) Where and how do we resolve this paradox, that's for each one of us to answer to our own selves!

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  6. @Vishal - Thanks Vishal. If only humans can think as you say ......

    @Kiwi - Ha Ha Ha on the rat comment. Indeed its a very personal balance that you have to make - as I am realising in almost all facets of life. Deeply personal has to be every decision.

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  7. Thank Goodness you are back :).

    I echo The Million Miler's comments. We have to carefully make our choices.

    Relative to where I was in Ahmedabad right after graduating college, I sure feel better now with the choices I've made. But now that I'm here, I feel I can slow down, be less materialistic, unclutter, and lead a simpler life.

    Hope you are doing well Ramesh!!!!

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  8. That was a long break atleast by BM standards:)

    Sad Wauthier had to take his life. Perhaps, it is lonely at the top with no one to share their pressure.

    Agree with your last paragraph, Stress at all levels but not just in an organization Ramesh, but at all levels like in even a students life. Even they are under immense pressure to perform. Some people are crazy for power, money and fame.

    Liked million miler's idea of fading to some remote area to grow farms. Just my idea too to lead a contented and healthy life.

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  9. @Shachi - Thanks Shachi. Yes, the choices are also a function of age and family circumstances. Perhaps like the traditional Hindu philosophy - there are stages even in a career - an aggressive phase, a materialistic phase, a winding down phase and a contentment phase - Worth some serious thought.

    @Asha - Yes long unintended break Asha. Back now !Yes, in all walks of life pressures have increased in today's world. The Million Miler's idea is not for everybody - he has dropped off earth (where is kiwiland anyway) to live amongst sheep :):) Not for everybody's .... just kidding :)

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  10. Anonymous6/9/13

    Ramesh, I haven't commented for a while however this blog 'struck a chord' - I think the pressure across business leaders has 'lost its way' as business in general is soooo bottom line focused...many other things get oushed to the side, people included !!.

    Good movie that questions this in some way is the Tom Cruiz 'Jerry McGuire' - good example to us all of 'be careful what you become in pursuit of what you want' !!!

    cheers from Trevor 'Down Under'

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  11. if one is going to face the pressure at all levels why not go for the highest levels?

    one of most favorite posts! with favourite quotes
    mascochism as killer instinct waoh waoh and its not all about money!

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  12. This is one example our business culture & work culture is on peak wrong direction. needs indepth change.

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  13. @Trevor - Lovely to see your comment. Trust you are doing fine. Indeed the extreme short term bottom line focus has made businesses push almost everything else to the sidelines. Hopefully the beautiful part of the world where you are is somewhat spared of this !

    @Zeno - Well yes, but pressure is not the same at all levels. Although I must say it perhaps depends as much on the individual as on the situation. Thanks for the nice words.

    @NR - Indeed so. Thanks for the comment.

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  14. Very sad to read about Wautheir's death. The kind of pressure and stress he must have gone thru to take this extreme step can only guessed at. And what u say is true...after a point the money doesn't matter[actually it does but u have so much of it u u thk it doesn't;-/]...the feeling of being in charge, the 'power' goes straight to the head; it's a rare person who can differentiate between what he needs and what he can get.

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  15. U were on a break....what happened, can't be dearth of 'business' subjects surely;-)???

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  16. @Reflections - Yes; sad no ? Its very unfortunate when a person is driven to such desperate situations.

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