Everyone seems to be concocting their own shortlists for the most desirable job in London (I speak, of course, of the leadership of the Liberal Democrats), but the contest that catches my eye is the one to become the next director-general of the CBI — not least because, in a moment of whimsy, I once applied for the post myself. The present incumbent, Sir Digby Jones, will step down by the end of this year and the CBI’s intention is to announce his successor before the summer. The search is in the hands of former Cabinet minister turned headhunter Virginia Bottomley and the early spin suggests that, for the first time, a female candidate may be preferred. Names already in the frame include Denise Kingsmill, formerly of the Competition Commission, and Kate Swann, the chief executive of W.H. Smith.
In the light of current debate about political correctness, you may think it absurd that gender should be a factor in this selection at all. But the rationale, apparently, is that the ebullient, marathon-running former lawyer Sir Digby has put in a performance so pulsatingly testosterone-packed as to make his act impossible for any ordinary male mortal to follow. Given the British penchant for appointing foreigners — Sven for the football team, that Frenchman for the Dome — this all seems to point towards the Texan Dame Marjorie Scardino, long-serving head of the Pearson group or, more imaginatively, Sven’s long-serving Italian girlfriend Nancy Dell’Olio, who is often described as a lawyer and looks as if she could reduce hostile male ministers and union leaders to putty.
But it must be possible to find men who are sufficiently in touch with their feminine side to be unfazed by the legacy of Sir Digby’s machismo: the transvestite Celebrity Big Brother contestant Pete Burns is perhaps too much of an unknown quantity at this stage, but there is another emergent star whose broad shoulders, controlled aggression and shimmering footwork are just what the CBI needs: Strictly Come Dancing champ Darren Gough.
Seriously, though, someone needs to keep up Sir Digby’s thrust, especially if David Cameron has decided to ‘not just stand up for big business, but stand up to big business’. Big business is prone to bouts of behaving badly and is rarely perceived by voters as benign — hence the Cameron gambit — but it is also the greatest engine of economic growth and progress yet invented. Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco was right to point out, in a recent interview, that while making money for its shareholders the giant supermarket chain is also transforming lives for the better by offering customers an amazing choice of affordable food and providing more than 250,000 jobs.
What British big business needs from a prime minister in waiting (of either party) is not moral indignation about selling chocolates beside the checkout, but the promise of a set of measures to address the fundamental weakness of our economy, which is a failure to make the most productive use of our human, physical and financial assets. Our output per worker trails behind the Americans and the French, and our output per hour worked is the lowest of the G7 nations except Japan. That directly affects our ability to fund public services without higher tax rates, or to pay decent pensions or invest in cleaner technologies. To correct the trend and hold our own against global competition, we need a system of technical education as good as Germany’s, a labour market as flexible as America’s, and a level of red tape no higher than Hong Kong’s — plus additional tax breaks for capital investment and research.
What big business is at risk of getting instead, whether from a Brown administration or from a focus-group-driven Cameron one, is a continuing series of eye-catching interventions that will make companies more difficult to run efficiently and less attractive to invest in. The CBI needs a formidable advocate, male or female, to present the case for the defence. I might apply again myself, but I’m not sure I’ve got the balls for the job.
If I could pick any historical figure to run the CBI, it would not be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose 250th birthday we celebrate this month. But I won’t be surprised if some bright publisher brings out a management handbook called Mozart’s Way in time to catch the anniversary tide. Last year’s Trafalgar celebrations provided a peg for Nelson’s Way, by Stephanie Jones and Jonathon Gosling, which offered ‘leadership insights for today’s managers’, particularly commending the one-eyed admiral’s ‘participative rather than directive’ man-management technique.
Before that, Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell found transatlantic success with Shackleton’s Way (2001), which translated into business-school jargon the stirring tale of how the explorer kept his stranded crew motivated for two years in the frozen Antarctic. The president of Jaguar North America once quoted Shackleton’s example so forcefully to a conference of car dealers that sales shot up by 56 per cent. Likewise, Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy (2003), by Partha Bose, showed how the skills of the ancient conqueror might have transferred to today’s boardroom, pointing out that his use of a ‘phantom threat’ to capture fortresses such as Sogdian Rock in Central Asia can be compared with the way the US manufacturer Ralston Purina outmanoeuvred competitors in the ‘gourmet pet food’ market in the 1980s.
There is endless scope in this genre, but it will be not be easy to extract winning corporate strategies from Mozart’s troubled life. Like British computer pioneers of the 1950s, he had a brilliant product but was hopeless at marketing it, forever failing to persuade the Emperor to give him a permanent job as court composer. Like the Concorde project, the technical excellence and beauty of Mozart’s work were undermined by a basic lack of financial control — which led him to beg for loans from his brother freemasons, and die in poverty at 35. Yet the process of reinventing him as an executive role model has begun: Andrew Clark in the Financial Times describes him as a ‘creative entrepreneur’ who ‘wrote music to order, not for posterity’, and points out that ‘Salzburg and Vienna are hoping to make record profits from the 7.4 billion euros Mozart “brand” this year’. A bottle of champagne to the reader who spots the most spurious Mozartian metaphor in the business pages in the next month.