Set B.S. to the max

A new book hysterically concludes that CEOs are a bunch of liars and cheats.

Dear Shareholders,

Last year was a funny sort of year. While all divisions showed growth, it was really just pure luck. The economy was expanding and we went along for the ride. In fact, I didn't even think we'd make a profit until our accountants suggested that we manipulate R&D expenditures to boost earnings per share. And even though the stock price did go up, many social activists were critical of our focus on shareholders' interests. They say all corporations are psychopaths; I guess they've got a point. Hopefully next year we can forget about this whole “making-a-profit” business and concentrate on keeping everyone else happy.

Your CEO

Would you invest in a company headed by a CEO who produced such a letter? No? Curiously, this is precisely the kind of report the authors of CEO-Speak (McGill-Queen's University Press, $39.95) would argue is the sign of an enlightened CEO.

In their new book, business professors Joel Amernic of the University of Toronto's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management and Russell Craig of the National Graduate School of Management in Canberra, Australia, (currently on sabbatical at Rotman) examine in close detail the writings of many famous North American CEOs. From GE's Jack Welch to Nortel's John Roth, they parse what chief executives say and write. And they are not impressed.

The hysterical conclusion of CEO-Speak is that chief executives are a bunch of liars, cheats and bullshitters out to control the world. And while the book doesn't have anything useful to say about Canadian business leaders, it does raise some interesting questions about what's going on in Canadian business schools.

Building on the business-is-evil mindset proposed by rabble-rousers such as Joel Bakan, author of the 2004 book The Corporation, the writers see conspiracies and hidden agendas in every statement or non-statement by a CEO. When former CN Rail CEO Paul Tellier told his staff that making a profit was necessary for the future survival of the firm, Amernic and Craig castigate him for ignoring the impact rail service cuts would have on small Canadian towns. They point out the alleged “irony” of the fact that Microsoft had a picture of a smiling Bill Gates on its website when the company was facing an antitrust suit. The use of military terminology such as “laser-focused” or “targeted” are signs that CEOs are ruthless dictators bent on world domination.

The central thesis of CEO-Speak is no more shocking than the discovery that politicians like to give speeches, sports stars talk in clichés and priests tend to sermonize. “Everybody's got an angle,” Bing Crosby said in the movie White Christmas. Human beings have a natural tendency to see things from their own perspective, and CEOs are no exception. The fact most of them tend to put a positive spin on their company's performance and adopt an accounting-based view of the world is hardly proof they belong to a secret cabal. It is, in fact, their job. That former Enron CEO Ken Lay was recently found guilty of fraud suggests that CEO-speak is no defence from the law.

The authors' observation that CEOs have an affinity for “techno-babble” gets little argument. But Amernic and Craig are equally guilty: “[W]e are particularly mindful of how the Internet, with its trappings of cybertextuality and multi-dimensionality, and its persuasive properties and technological idiosyncrasies, is fashioning a rapidly growing and influential corporate financial-reporting environment,” they write. Another section bombards readers with obscure references to Greek rhetorical terms such as apomnemonysis, homoioteleuton and epitrochasmus. So who's bullshitting whom?

Buried somewhere in this book is the nub of an idea worthy of exploration: that accounting isn't the exact science it often presents itself to be. Earnings per share may be open to manipulation, but laying blame for this at the feet of all CEOs is like blaming baseball catchers for blocking the plate. It is the rule-makers, not the rule-takers, who must accept proper responsibility.

By now, the business community is used to accusations of its alleged black arts from environmentalists, left-wing politicians and assorted other activists. What makes this book stand out is that the talk of “market tyranny” and corporations as “institutionalized psychopaths” is coming from two professors at a respected Canadian business school. The pair's solutions to the alleged problems of CEO-speak are greater government control of markets, more bureaucracy in the private and public sectors, an end to CEOs' duty of care to shareholders and–get this–more snore-inducing courses on critical textual analysis in business schools so students can know exactly how many times a CEO says “our company” versus “the company.”

All of which raises the following question: If Rotman's professors consider the market to be unjust, corporations psychopathic and their CEOs habitual liars, should we really be trusting that school to teach future generations of business leaders? Rather than decoding the obvious biases of CEOs, perhaps we should be more worried about deciphering the bizarre agendas of the country's academic community.