Mad Dog 21/21: Power Cuts
October 27, 2014 Hesh Wiener
It’s not difficult to underestimate Donald Trump and forget he earned a degree in economics at the vaunted Wharton School. His cuckoo coiffure amplifies the impression he makes on boosters and blasters alike. Follicular folly similarly misdirects observers of Boris Johnson, London’s mayor. Soon, however, Johnson might get serious about standing for Prime Minister, in which case his unthatcherish thatch could befriend a brush. Ginni Rometty‘s hairdo, by contrast, alludes to Duplessis’ Franklin; it proclaims grit and gravitas, as befits an executive Fortune dubs the most powerful woman in the business world.
Of these three notables, Trump appears to have the greatest freedom to do what he pleases when it comes to business matters. His real estate activities involve other individuals and institutions along with their money, but Trump has generally been able to call his shots. Not all the Trump projects have succeeded. Most recently, some properties in Atlantic City that once bore the Trump imprimatur have gone down the drain. He will move on, as he always has–win, lose or draw. For Trump, Atlantic City is history, but Scotland is the future. That is where he has built a golf course. That is where he has established a luxury resort in a place he calls MacLeod House. MacLeod is Trump’s Scottish mother’s maiden name. If that doesn’t work, he’ll focus on Ireland.
Trump is perpetually in motion, heading, as IBM does, from activities with weakening profitability to new ventures that promise superior returns.
Trump and IBM share an interest in social media. Trump’s media visibility, such as his propensity to express himself via Twitter, is personal. But what he has to tweet about is apparently of concern to quite a few Twitterers. Reportedly, Trump has about two million followers.
IBM isn’t famous for tweets from CEO Rometty. It sees its most important role in social media as that of an enabler not a cyber-celebrity. IBM wants its enterprise customers to use IBM technology and services to reach out to their social media audiences. But that doesn’t mean IBM is avoiding social media for its own use. On the contrary: IBM may be the most social company in corporate America. By some estimates, 92 percent of IBM’s employees are tied together via the social medium LinkedIn.
News of this assessment of Big Blue’s propensity to use social media was broadcast by the Economist using Twitter. Twitter is also one of the favored media used by Alliance@IBM, local 1701 of the Communications Workers of America union. These days, even formerly serious folk seem to spend an awful lot of time and other resources on activities that resemble the creation of supermarket checkout station tabloids. And in media like tabloids, where characters like Trump play as heroes, it’s hard to see how corporations like IBM, publications like the Economist, or labor organization efforts like those of Alliance@IBM can come out on top.
It all just leaves observers scratching their heads. And if they do that long enough, their hair, at least among the observers who are not alopecic, might get the birds’ nest look that has become a trademark of London’s New York-born mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Johnson often seems as silly as his hair looks, but this is a bit of a charade. His education at Eton and Oxford, his years in journalism, his service as a member of Parliament before putting in six years as London’s mayor and his declared intention to return to Parliament via next year’s general election point toward a character with powerful ambitions aimed at maintaining a rich public life.
Johnson wouldn’t fit in very well at IBM, at least not in this year’s IBM. If he had to serve as a bigwig in computing, the best match might be a place like Oracle, or at least Oracle before Larry Ellison eased himself out of the boss’s chair. If there ever was an IBM that might tolerate and even celebrate Johnson and his self-indulgent pelt it was the IBM that for a couple years was led by Vin Learson. Learson was an extremely aggressive executive, at least for an IBMer, and a sailor so bent on victory at any cost that he dismasted his craft during a race or two.
Notwithstanding his great self-confidence and healthy ego, Boris Johnson doesn’t see himself as a central product the way Donald Trump does. Johnson seems to be quite pleased by his role as mayor even though he knows that his job might be unnecessary.
London is a city that has been proved to function without a central government. When Margaret Thatcher, who hated London’s citywide government, was Prime Minister, she got Parliament to disband London’s governing body, the Greater London Council, in 1986. About fourteen years later, in 2000, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Parliament set up a new form of London government headed by a mayor. In 2008, Boris Johnson was elected to that office.
While serving as mayor, Johnson pressed hard for improvements in London’s transit system, notably by extending the hours of tube lines. He fought to preserve live ticket sellers in the London Underground and managed to defeat some measures to shut the ticket booths. Ultimately, however, Johnson was overwhelmed by opposing forces, leading to a scheme that will replace all the live ticket sellers with vending machines. Johnson himself is not a big user of the tube. He is well known for going around London on a bicycle, and, controversially, for taking a lot of taxis at taxpayers’ expense.
The next phase in Johnson’s career will begin next year. He is likely to be elected to Parliament based on his celebrity and wide public appeal more than his politics. But his party, the Conservatives, might have a more difficult time gaining a majority in the legislature or even getting enough seats to provide most of the heft in a collation with another party, which is how the United Kingdom is currently governed. However the British elections play out, Johnson is very likely to emerge as one of the foci of Parliamentary government and, perhaps for the first time in his life, the hob of a political organization that eventually seeks to govern the country. If he starts combing his hair in a more conventional way, keep an eye on this fellow.
Unlike Boris Johnson, Ginny Rometty sports a perfectly presented hairdo. And unlike Donald Trump’s flamboyant flip, Rometty’s hairstyle is designed to show her as a serene and sincere leader. Every aspect of her demeanor shows that she is in charge. Her power shapes the conduct and attitude of everyone around her. She doesn’t have to bully like Trump waxing theatrical, nor in a socially intimidating way allude to a childhood as an Etonian toff. She may have her hands full with major league business problems, but Ginni Rometty doesn’t have to engage in public drama to make her will known or to see that her wishes are fulfilled.
Her appearance and demeanor signal the kind of intelligence that commands respect from anyone who has risen far enough to be near her. It is a look that seems to evoke the essence of Benjamin Franklin as painted by Joseph Duplessis in 1778. That is the portrait that became the basis of Franklin’s image on the hundred dollar bill. Franklin appears forthright, alert, and determined. That’s pretty much the way Rometty appears, too, when she is in the public eye.
Recently she anchored the presentation to investors of IBM’s third quarter earnings report, one of the most difficult events in IBM’s hundred year history. She had to recant on a promise made by her predecessor, Sam Palmisano, who had asserted that IBM would earn $20 a share in 2015. She had to confess poor results for the quarter. And she had to tell investors that IBM was going to take a $4.7 billion writedown on its semiconductor manufacturing operations as it paid GlobalFoundries a $1.5 billion disposal fee to rid itself of money-losing chip fabs.
Rometty will have to maintain a positive stance later this year when IBM announces layoffs, which will cost the company around $600 million more and that were inevitable in the wake of IBM’s dissatisfaction with its current level of employee productivity. To boost profits that are under severe pressure, IBM will have to get more done by fewer people.
Just how the company expresses its policy decisions will become known in due course. But in the meantime Ginni Rometty will show her resolute nature with tresses intact as she adjusts the careers of numerous IBM employees. Hair today. Gone tomorrow.