Monday, December 12, 2011

Most People Don't Know Their Business (so asking them is useless)

I’ll admit it; I am rapidly becoming a skeptic when it comes to interview-based data. And the reason is that people (interviewees) just don’t know their business – although, of course, they think they do.

For example, in an intriguing research project with my (rather exceptional) PhD student Amandine Ody, we asked lots of people in the Champagne industry whether different Champagne houses paid different prices for a kilogram of their raw material: grapes. The answer was unanimously and unambiguously “no”; everybody pays more or less the same price. But when we looked at the actual data (which are opaque at first sight and pretty hard to get), the price differences appeared huge: some paid 6 euros for a kilogram, others 8, and yet other 10 or even 12. Thinking it might be the (poor) quality of the data, we obtained a large sample of similar data from a different source: supplier contracts. Which showed exactly the same thing. But the people within the business really did not know; they thought everybody was paying about the same price. They were wrong.

Then Amandine asked them which houses supplied Champagne for supermarket brands (a practice many in the industry thoroughly detest, but it is very difficult to observe who is hiding behind those supermarket labels). They mentioned a bunch of houses, both in terms of the type of houses and specific named ones, who they “were sure were behind it”. And they quite invariably were completely wrong. Using a clever but painstaking method, Amandine deduced who was really supplying the Champagne to the supermarkets, and she found out it was not the usual suspects. In fact, the houses that did it were exactly the ones no-one suspected, and the houses everyone thought were doing it were as innocent as a newborn baby. They were – again – dead wrong.

And this is not the only context and project where I have had such experiences, i.e. it is not just a French thing. With a colleague at University College London – Mihaela Stan – we analyzed the British IVF industry. One prominent practice in this industry is the role of a so-called integrator; one medical professional who is always “the face” towards the patient, i.e. a patient is always dealing with one and the same doctor or nurse, and not a different one very time the treatment is in a different stage. All interviewees told us that this really had no substance; it was just a way of comforting the patient. However, when we analyzed the practice’s actual influence – together with my good friend and colleague Phanish Puranam – we quickly discovered that the use of such an integrator had a very real impact on the efficacy of the IVF process; women simply had a substantially higher probability of getting pregnant when such an integrator, who coordinates across the various stages of the IVF cycle, was used. But the interviewees had no clue about the actual effects of the practice.*

My examples are just conjectures, but there is also some serious research on the topic. Olav Sorenson and David Waguespack published a study on film distributors in which they showed that these distributors’ beliefs about what would make a film a success were plain wrong (they just made them come true by assigning them more resources based on this belief). John Mezias and Bill Starbuck published several articles in which they showed how people do not even know basic facts about their own companies, such as the sales of their own business unit, error rates, or quality indicators. People more often than not were several hundreds of percentages of the mark, when asked to report a number.

Of course interviews can sometimes be interesting; you can ask people about their perceptions, why they think they are doing something, and how they think things work. Just don’t make the mistake of believing them.

Much the same is true for the use of questionnaires. They are often used to ask for basic facts and assessments: e.g. “how big is your company”, “how good are you at practice X”, and so on. Sheer nonsense is the most likely result. People do not know their business, both in terms of the simple facts and in terms of the complex processes that lead to success or failure. Therefore, do yourself (and us) a favor: don’t ask; get the facts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Lying Dutchman: Fraud in the Ivory Tower

The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…

For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully review the literature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.

He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.

In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.

There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.
• The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
• The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
• That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
• Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
• Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What's wrong with senior executive pay – lots in my view

There are three things I do not like about top management pay: 1) they usually get paid too much, 2) way too large a part is flexible, performance-related pay, 3) often, a very sizeable chunk of it is paid through stock options.

I used to think - naively - that high top management pay was high simply due to supply and demand: these smart people with lots of business acumen and experience are hard to come by; therefore you have to pay them lots. These grumpy anti-corporates claiming their pay is too high are just envious and naive. Turns out I was (maybe not envious, but certainly naive).

Pay level
Because digging into the rigorous research on the topic - and there is quite a bit of it - I learned that there is really not much of a relationship between firm performance and top management pay. These guys (mostly guys) get paid a lot whether or not their company's performance is any good. Moreover, I learned what sort of factors push up top managers' remuneration - and it ain't supply and demand. It has much more to do with selecting the right company directors (to serve on your remumeration committee) and making sure you are well networked and socialized into the business elite.* Now I have to conclude: top management pay is generally too high, and quite a bit too high.

Flexible pay
Secondly: where does this absurd idea come from that 80+ percent of these guys' remuneration has to be performance related?! "To reward them for good performance and stimulate them to act in the best interest of the company and its shareholders" you might say? To which I would reply "oh, come on!?" If your CEO is the type of guy who needs 90 percent performance-related pay or otherwise he won't act in the best interest of the company, I would say the perfect time to get rid of him is yesterday. You and I do not need 90 percent performance related pay to do our best, do we? So why would it be allowed to hold for top managers? As Henry Mintzberg put it: "Real leaders don't take bonuses".

Moreover, one should only pay performance-related remuneration if you can actually measure the person's performance. And that is - especially for top managers - actually pretty darn hard to do. The strategic decisions one takes this year will often only be felt 5 or 10 years from now, if not longer. Moreover, the performance of the company - which we always take to proxy the CEO's performance - is influenced by a whole bunch of other things; many not under a CEO's control. Hence, short term financial performance figures are a terrible indicator of a top manager's performance in the job and long-term performance contracts all but impossible to specify. If you can't reliably measure performance, don't have performance-related pay, and certainly not 80+ percent of it. We know from ample research that humans start manipulating their performance when you tie their remuneration to some strange metric and, guess what, CEOs are pretty human (at least in that respect); they do too.

Finally: stock options... Once again, I have to say "oh, come on...". We pretty much take for granted that we pay top managers by awarding them options, but don't quite realize any more why. When I ask this question to my students or the executives in my lecture room ("why do we actually pay them in options...?") usually a stunned silence follows after which someone mumbles "because they are cheap to hand out...?". I usually try to remain polite after such an answer but why would they be cheap; cheaper than cash, or shares for that matter? True, it does not cost you anything out of pocket if you give them an option to buy shares for say 100 one year from now, while your present share price is 90, but if the share price by that time is 150 it does cost you 50. Moreover, you could have sold that stock option to someone who would have happily paid you good money for it, so in terms of opportunity costs it is realy money too. No, stock options are not cheaper than cash, shares, or whatever.

We give them options to stimulate them to take more risk. "Risk?! We want them to take more risk?!" thou might think. Yes, that's what you are doing if you give them options. If the share price is 150 at the time the option expires, the CEO can buy the shares at 100 and thus make 50. However, if the share price is 90 the option is worthless, and the CEO does not make anything. However, the trick is that the CEO then does not care whether the share price is 90 or, say, 50 - in either case he does not make any money; worthless is worthless. As a consequence, when his options (i.e. the right to buy shares at 100) are about to expire and the company's share price is still 90, he has a great incentive to quickly take a massive amount of risk. Going to a roulette table would already be a rational to do.

Because if you placed the company's capital on red, and the ball hits red, share price may jump from 90 to 130, and suddenly your options are worth a lot of money (130-100 to be precise). However, if your bet fails, the ball hits black and you lose a ton of money, who cares; the share price may fall from 90 to 50, but your options were worthless anyway. Hence, options give a top manager the upside risk, as we say, but do not give them the downside risk. Therefore, we incentivize them to take risk. You might think "I seldom see herds of CEOs in a casino by the time options expire, so this grumpy Vermeulen guy must be exaggerating" but I'd reply we have seen quite a lot of casino-type strategy in various businesses lately (e.g. banks). More importantly, we know from research that CEOs do take excessive risk due to stock options (see for instance Sanders and Hambrick, 2007; Zhang e.a. 2008). I think it would be naive to think that we give CEOs 90 percent performance related pay and most of it in stock options, and then think that they will not start acting in the way the remuneration system stimulates them to do. Of course it influences their decisions, and if it didn't, there would be no reason left to make their pay flexible and based on options, now would there?

Therefore, I would say, out with the performance-related pay for top managers (a good bottle of wine at Christmas and, if you insist, a small cheque like the rest of us would do). And while we're at it, let's try to reduce the level as well.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

“Entrepreneurship can only be self-taught. There are many ways to do it right and even more wrong, but it cannot be processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern”, one of my readers – Michael Marotta – commented on an earlier post.

I am not sure I agree with the suggestion of that statement, namely that "entrepreneurship can only be self-taught". Of course we hear it more often - "you cannot teach entrepreneurship" - but I have yet to see any evidence of it. Granted, this is a weak statement, since the evidence that business education helps with anything is rather scarce (although there is some)!

However, the fact that the majority of entrepreneurs did not have formal business education does not tell me anything. Suppose out of 1000 attempted entrepreneurs indeed only 100 had formal business education. It might still be very possible that out of the 100, 50 of them became successful, where out of the 900 others only 300 became successful. This means that out of the 350 successful entrepreneurs, a mere 50 had formal business education. However, 50% of business educated entrepreneurs became successful, while only 1/3 of entrepreneurs without business education did.

My feeling about the potentially influence of business education on the odds of becoming a successful entrepreneur are quite the opposite of Marotta’s. I see quite a few attempted entrepreneurs with good business ideas and energy, however, they make some basic mistakes when attempting to build it into a business. The sheer logic of how to set up a viable business - once you have had a good idea - is something that is open to being "processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern" (although that is hardly what we do in B-school).

Having a great idea and ample vision and energy perhaps is a necessary condition for becoming a successful entrepreneur, but it is not sufficient; this requires many other skills, and for some of them, education helps. Out of the 10 different skills needed to become a successful entrepreneur, perhaps only 5 can be taught or enhanced through business education, but those 5 will clearly improve your odds of making it.

Perhaps the majority of successful entrepreneurs do not have formal business education, but I have yet to meet a successful enterpreneur who did go to business school who proclaims his/her education was not a great help in becoming a success. Invariably, those people claim their education helped them a lot. In fact, many of such business school alumni donate generously to their alma mater. For example, one of London Business School's successful alumni entrepreneurs, Tony Wheeler (founder of Lonely Planet travel guides) regularly donates very substantial amounts of money to the School, because he believes his education there helped him greatly in making his business a success, and he wants others to have the same experience and opportunity.

In the absence of any formal evidence on whether business school education helps or hinders becoming a successful entrepreneur, I am inclined to rely on their judgement: business school education helps, if you want to become a successful entrepreneur.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need

“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world's best innovators and CEO's about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to 'live the life they love and not settle' and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”.
This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.

But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?

And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human.

We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.

Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.

But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Steve Jobs – the man was fallible

As a student, at Reed College, Steve Jobs came to believe that if he ate only fruits he would eliminate all mucus and not need to shower anymore. It didn’t work. He didn’t smell good. When he got a job at Atari, given his odor, he was swiftly moved into the night shift, where he would be less disruptive to the nostrils of his fellow colleagues.

The job at Atari exposed him to the earliest generation of video games. It also exposed him to the world business and what it meant build up and run a company. Some years later, with Steve Wozniak, he founded Apple in Silicon Valley (of course in a garage) and quite quickly, although just in his late twenties, grew to be a management phenomenon, featuring in the legendary business book by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “In Search of Excellence”.

But, in fact, shortly after the book became a bestseller, by the mid 1980s, Apple was in trouble. Although their computers were far ahead of their time in terms of usability – mostly thanks to the Graphical User Interface (based on an idea he had cunningly copied from Xerox) – they were just bloody expensive. Too expensive for most people. For example, the so-called Lisa retailed for no less than $10,000 (and that is 1982 dollars!). John Sculley – CEO – recalled “We were so insular, that we could not manufacture a product to sell for under $3,000.” Steve Jobs was fantastically able to assemble and motivate a team op people that managed to invent a truly revolutionary product, but he also was unable to turn it into profit.

When Jobs was fired from Apple – in 1985 – CEO John Sculley took control. Sculley is often described as a bit of a failure, because “nothing revolutionary came out of Apple under his watch”, “he could have done so much more with the company” and especially for “being stupid enough to boot out a genius like Steve Jobs”. However, the years after Sculley took over were some of Apple’s most profitable. The man did something right, and that was focus on exploiting the competitive advantage that Apple had built up.

In management research, following terminology cornered by the legendary Stanford professor Jim March, we often say that firms have to balance exploration with exploitation. Exploration refers to developing new sources of competitive advantage and growth. Exploitation refers to making money out of them. Steve Jobs was “insanely great” at exploration, but not – at the time – at exploitation. Sculley was.

Now Steve Jobs is a legend. And rightly so; our world literally would have looked different without him. However, what Steve Jobs’ legendary status also tells me is that we – mere mortals – are inclined to overestimate the omnipotence of CEOs. We overdo it when we ascribe the failure of an entire company to just one man or woman (e.g. Enron’s Jeff Skilling) but also when we ascribe the entire success of a company to one individual.

Steve Jobs wasn’t omnipotent (John Sculley had qualities Jobs didn’t) and he wasn’t always right (eating only fruits does not eliminate the need for an occasional shower). His day-to-day influence on Apple over the last years must have been limited, given his rapidly and severely deteriorating health. If anything, he simply would not have been able to be around enough to control and take care of everything. Nevertheless, the company did well in spite of his absence. And of course that is his laudable achievement too; he managed to build a company that could do well without him. And perhaps that may prove to be his best business lesson after all: how a great leader eventually makes himself superfluous.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Can countries benefit from having their domestic firms acquired by foreign companies?

When a foreign company acquires a domestic firm, it often leads to outcries of indignation, nostalgia (“another of our once great companies in foreign hands”), and calls for legislation to prevent any more foreign poaching. Politicians and union leaders proclaim that the foreign owners may not be dedicated to keep up investment in the subsidiary, and that the take-over threatens national jobs and other economic interests. “Most governments are reluctant to see their corporate treasures fall into foreign hands”, the BBC wrote in an article devoted to the topic.

But is all this (slightly xenophobic) fear justified? Well, maybe not; at least not on all dimensions. Because we have increasing evidence that foreign ownership of a firm may actually also benefit firms, specifically in terms of their innovativeness. And this increased innovativeness may clearly benefit the host country.

Professor Annique Un, from Northeastern University in Boston, for example, did a pointy study. She collected data on 761 manufacturing firms operating in Spain, examined which ones were foreign hands and what their innovation output was in terms of new products introduced in the market. And the answer was pretty clear: foreign owned firms were more innovative than purely domestic firms.

Interestingly, Annique also corrected her models for the amount of R&D investments spent in the companies, and it turned out that this was not what was driving it; foreign owned companies were not just more innovative because they were investing more. Instead, they were more innovative irrespective of R&D. As a matter of fact, they were able to generate more product innovations for the same level of investment; meaning that they were simply better at it.

The study’s results suggested that they were better at it for two reasons. First, foreign parents seemed to use their domestic subsidiary to channel innovation into the country. Put differently, it seemed a foreign-owned company could tap into its parent’s superior repository of innovative stuff, and most of them gratefully made ample use of that option. Secondly, the foreign-owned companies were simply also better at coming up with new stuff on their own, in comparison to their domestic counterparts. Apparently, something about them being foreign-owned stimulated them to be more agile and creative, which resulted in more product introductions.

Whatever the reason behind this foreign-driven surge in innovation, the host country was better off for it; the evidence clearly showed that the foreign mercenaries stimulated diversity in the markets, giving customers more choice, while raising the bar for everyone. And this is not a benefit we hear many politicians, newspapers, and union leaders proclaim and acknowledge, when yet another foreign corporation is eyeing up their country’s corporate treasures.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Don’t be mistaken, bankers kill (but they give life too)

"In terms of power and influence, you can forget the church, forget politics. There is no more powerful institution in society than business” the equally famous as illustrious CEO and founder of the BodyShop – the late Dame Anita Roddick – said. And of course she was right. The most comprehensive and dominant institution in today’s society is business.

Business is more influential than people often realize, simply because it creates – or destroys – wealth. And wealth impacts pretty much anything we care about. Whether you analyze crime rates in a particular country, malnutrition, happiness, or infant mortality; a huge influence is how wealthy the particular society is. And wealth is created by business.

As a consequence, for example, the 2008 banking crisis undoubtedly killed people. Infant mortality is closely related to wealth and consequently an economic crisis will among others lead to a surge in infant mortality, somewhere, in some country down the road. It also means that the strategic business choices made by CEOs such as Lehman’s Richard Fuld or RBS’s Fred Goodwin indirectly but significantly influence the survival chances of some baby boy or girl born on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit. And therefore, whether you like it or not, bankers kill.

But let’s not forget that they give life too. The inverse of “bankers kill” is true too. If banks make wise choices, given their pivotal role in our economies, they can trigger a huge boost to the prosperity of many industries. And the profits, employment, and general wealth created through this boost will really improve the health and survival chances of the baby cradled by her mother somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

Given the research we have on the link between economic prosperity and infant mortality it would not even be too onerous to come up with some estimate of the direct relationship between Royal Bank of Scotland’s balance sheet and the probability of a baby surviving. We could relatively easily calculate the link between profit and the number of lives saved. I could even imagine that the computer terminals that give live updates of a company’s fluctuating share price – which many corporations have dotted across their entrance halls and offices for everyone to see – would be reprogrammed to display the number of children’s lives saved. Traders walking over to their lunch break could have an immediate update of how many baby lives the deal they just closed saved – or destroyed.

A ridiculous thought? Why? Don’t you care (even) more about the life or death of a baby than your company’s fluctuating share price? I am guessing you do. And you know these bankers aren’t so different from (other) human beings. Your company’s performance also creates wealth, and wealth saves lives. Why then only monitor its financial performance? I tell you, the sandwich you’re having for lunch will taste a whole lot better, knowing that this morning you just saved some unknown baby’s life, somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Boards and fraud – who gets the sack and who gets to stay?

We have seen lots of corporate scandals over the past decade, and in many of these cases the boards of directors were up for some heavy criticism. Whether it was Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, or one of the toppled investment banks, their boards took some flack, since of course they are ultimately responsible for the corporation’s actions.

But what happens to such directors? What happens to these people in the business elite when their company, for example, is caught being involved in financial fraud? Well, perhaps not surprisingly – and this may come as a relief – they often get the sack (as research by Professor Arthaud-Day from from Kansas State University and colleagues convincingly showed). Directors associated with financial misrepresentations are often dismissed from the board of their fraudulent company but, interestingly, subsequently they also regularly get the boot at another board. As you may know, outside directors often serve on the boards of multiple companies and a study by Professor Srinivasan from the Harvard Business School showed that they lose about 25 percent of these (rather lucrative) jobs if one of the companies in their portfolio is caught up in fraud.

Yet, this also implies that 75 percent of companies retain a particular board member, even though he or she is compromised having served on the board of another company while it was committing fraud. And that begs the question, what firms decide to retain such a tainted board member, and which ones decide give them the sack?

Professors Amanda Cowen and Jeremy Marcel from the University of Virginia decided to examine this. They managed to collect data on 277 directors who served on multiple boards concurrently, one of which was associated with financial fraud. Their statistical analysis showed that companies that were covered by more equity analysts and governance-rating agencies were more likely to dismiss compromised board members; up to twice as likely. These external observers apparently serve as a bit of watchdog. However, surprisingly, when a company had a relatively large number of public pension fund investors amongst its shareholders, they were less likely to dismiss a compromised board member. Cowen and Marcel speculated that this was because these pension fund shareholders do the monitoring themselves, so that they don’t care much about the company’s directors; tainted or not.

You also have to realize who does the firing; and that is the rest of the board. Cowen and Marcel’s research also showed that very prestigious, well-networked boards were less likely to fire their tainted fellow director. It is well known that boards of directors form a rather cliquish corporate elite. It is not easy to find your way into this world, but once your solidly in, not even a little financial fraud is going to convince your corporate buddies to throw you out.