Posts tagged ‘executive pay’

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

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And This Is Better, How?

Critics of high executive pay on the soft-core / moderate left (as opposed to the hard-core socialist left) often argue that they are not against large incomes per se.  However, they argue that high executive pay is often the result of a failure in the structure of corporate governance, where a group of cozy insiders on the board and management hand each other compensation packages to which the rank and file of shareholders would be opposed  (a subset of the agency cost problem).

I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument, as I have personally observed instances where I thought boards and management were too cozy by far.  However, no one has really succeeded at proving this hypothesis on executive pay, and in fact shareholders when they have had a chance to vote on such packages have never really made a meaningful dent in them, and one can find a number of private companies where such governance issues presumably don't exist but high executive compensation packages can exist.

Just as an aside, a classic example of this can be found in the fabulous book "Barbarians at the Gate" about the RJR Nabisco takeover fight.  The book does a great job of portraying a company with horrible corporate governance issues that seemed to be used to enrich managers with both salaries and perks, but then observed that the new private owners of the company gave their new CEO a compensation package that might have made the previous executives blush.

Anyway, I am yet again off the point.  My point was to observe that the mainstream left seems to believe that there are corporate governance issues at large corporations that disenfranchise the majority of shareholders vis a vis key decisions involving the company executives.  So I have to ask myself, if this is a real fear, then how does one justify having the President of the United States effectively fire the GM CEO, without any vote or substantial input from shareholders?

Postscript: It is all well and good to be cognizant of agency costs.  Everyone should understand when an employee (or contractor or whatever) has different incentives than they themselves possess.  For example, on my recent backyard renovation, I always kept in mind that my architect wanted to create a showplace that would advance his business and possible get into a magazine.  In general, this alligns our interests, but there were times he pressed for things I did not value and I had to be insistent we were not going to do those things.

However, many folks seem to want to run off to government to do something about agency costs whenever or wherever they are found.  This is hugely dangerous, as Congress tends to have the highest agency costs one will ever be likely to find.

We're All Technocrats

The auto bailout is dead, at least for now:

A bailout-weary Congress killed a $14 billion package to aid struggling U.S. automakers Thursday night after a partisan dispute over union wage cuts derailed a last-ditch effort to revive the emergency
aid before year's end.

Republicans, breaking sharply with President George W. Bush as his term draws to a close, refused to back federal aid for Detroit's beleaguered Big Three without a guarantee that the United Auto Workers would agree by the end of next year to wage cuts to bring their pay into line with U.S. plants of Japanese carmakers. The UAW refused to do so before its current contract with the automakers expires in 2011.

Good.  Chapter 11 was made for this kind of situation, and folks will quickly come to understand that productive assets don't go *poof* in a bankruptcy  (though equity values can).

By the way, you will note that Senate Republicans did not suddenly become economic libertarians.  Their objection seems to be that the bill does not micro-manage the auto industry they same way they would want to micro-manage the auto industry.  You can see in these political battles that Congress brings its usual identity politics to these decisions:  Republicans want to hammer the unions, Democrats want to hammer executive pay.  Which is why these restructuring discussions don't belong in Congress.


Apparently, the Democratic Congress is trying to "take on" high executive pay with some kind of punitive taxation plan.  This fits well into a class of legislation I would describe as "useless at best, probably counter-productive, but of high symbolic value to our base," something to which both parties are unbelievably susceptible.

I'm confused, by the way, about why exactly I should care how much CEOs are paid, particularly for executives that don't work for companies in which I own stock?  I don't think Paris Hilton, George Clooney, or the CEO of Home Depot are worth what they are paid, but I don't know how it affects me except perhaps for some simmering envy.  Does anyone with above a 5th grade education really believe that they will pay one cent less for gas or a refinery worker will make one dollar more if the CEO of Shell is paid less?

I do understand why the shareholders of Home Depot might be pissed off about what they were paying their CEO, or more accurately, what they paid him to go away.  I am sure the Arizona Cardinals felt the same way about Dennis Green.  Now, if Democrats wanted to suggest that shareholder voting and corporate governance rules needed to be amended to make it easier for shareholders to hold managers accountable for bad decisions and to overrule sweetheart deals between buddies on the board, I am very open to listening.