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Me and the Gang Down by the Schoolyard

Me and the Gang Down by the Schoolyard

The kids are not alright

I've decided to become a director of a large technology company as my next job, because I'm at that stage in my life where I'm beginning to miss my childhood.

Witnessing the behaviour of current directors and executives takes me back to primary school. There's Telstra telling would-be director Geoff Cousins: "You can't be in our gang cos you're still in Howard's gang and you can't be in two gangs." Then the kerfuffle over the amount of lunch money that Telstra gang leader Sol gets, which is said to be more than the value of the whole tuck shop.

The Hewlett-Packard schoolyard bust-up started with one gang member saying: "I know a secret and I can't tell ya. Okay I'll tell, but ya can't tell anyone. All right, print it in the school paper, but don't tell no one I told ya."

When she found out about the back-biting, Mean Girls clique leader Patricia Dunn summoned outside help. "I'll give you Grade 4s heaps of lollies if you find out who's been dobbing from my gang. Find out from the teachers or something - but don't tell anyone I told you." The Grade 4s, clearly excited by the prospect of lots of lolly, were very inventive in their methods, convincing one HP gang member to give them personal details about the others, even though it was against school rules. As we now know, the Grade 4s were overenthusiastic, the teachers found out and the gang leader along with a couple of head boys was expelled.

Taking this out of school, the summary of these antics shows startling similarities. The Telstra board investigated its suggested director, nominated by people with questionable motives, while the HP board investigated its suspected director, using people with questionable methods.

The spin proffered by both CEOs is to be greatly admired. Telstra said the nominee director might unsettle prospective T3 investors, which is comforting to those of us who thought the unsettling factor was the plunging share price.

HP's CEO, Mark Hurd, has promised to move the company to its rightful place as the envy of corporate America. As a company that secretly spied on its own employees using external people to reduce any flak, HP probably were the envy of corporate America. They made only the tiniest of mistakes: they got caught out. Now HP is the envy of administrative America, with federal, state and legal bodies falling over themselves to run investigations and enquiries. This is fair and reasonable, because the US government would never condone the use of illegal or unethical methods to obtain unauthorized information - certainly not since some Watershed event in the early 1970s.

Tough Management Rules

I think the press has been too harsh on the HP directors, who may have been merely reading up on Chuck Martin's latest management book with the world's longest title: Tough Management: The 7 Winning Ways to Make Tough Decisions Easier, Deliver the Numbers, and Grow the Business in Good Times and Bad (whew!). Chuck lists seven key actions, which we can see at least one HP director firmly embraced.

1. Communicate clearly (which the HP director did with the journalists).

2. Force hard decisions (where the HP director decided whether to talk to CNET, The Wall Street Journal or San Francisco Examiner).

3. Focus on results (the HP director ensured his leaks were prominently published).

4. Remain flexible (the HP director talked to journalists by phone, but his options included e-mail, instant messaging or face-to-face meetings if pretexting posed a risk).

5. Prove your value (a goal the HP director emphatically achieved, albeit in the negative. Managing to bring down yourself, your chairman, another director and having the company subjected to endless enquiries is proof enough).

6. Force collaboration (prior to this initiative, journalists had not been teaming with the HP board).

7. Tough management (where the HP director recognized employees with potential and provided what was required to make them more effective. The fact they weren't employees of HP only shows the HP director thought outside the square).

Although HP is in the spotlight at the moment, it's by no means a trailblazer. One in three UK directors admitted taking confidential corporate information when they left a company so we know honest and dishonest directors abound. There's the one-third who were honest about being dishonest, the actual honest ones who don't pinch information, and the really dishonest ones who not only steal but lie when surveyed.

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