Thursday, February 26, 2009

Discussion of the Week - Prioritizing Shareholders vs. Stakeholders

Over the weekend, we had our first Financial Mgm't class, with Dr.Sandra Dow. One of the readings for the class was a piece by Michael Jensen (Harvard Business School), entitled Value Maximization, Stakeholder Theory, and the Corporate Objective Function.

[I'm paraphrasing & summarizing here, so my apologies to Dr.Jensen for butchering his theory]

The paper makes the argument that companies need to consistently put the maximization of Shareholder Wealth as their top priority, ahead of goals to enhance Stakeholder "value".

It was an interesting topic for a couple of reasons:
1 - Several other courses have brought up the Balanced Scorecard model as an example of how to manage the business, often showing that Balanced Scorecard provides management with balance across Financial, Customer, Internal Business Processes, and Learning & Growth. This was the first time the Balanced Scorecard was presented as the wrong approach for running the business, and that it led to too many internal conflicts to be able to manage simultaneously.

2 - It was the first class with Dr.Dow, and the first couple hours were spent going over the Pros and Cons of these different prioritizations. Needless to say, it was a healthy discussion as my classmates had very strong opinions (on both sides) about how well each approach worked in their experience, the morality issues, the conflicts of interest with employee/mgm't stock ownership, how much lower-level employees or managers could impact shareholder wealth (ie. stock price), etc.. Dr.Dow has been very generous with her time in extending this discussion with several of us via email since the class, and I expect it will be an on-going discussion throughout the semester, especially given the existing economy (how we got in, and how we might get out).

Overall, it was a good discussion to reflect on how this applies to each of our companies, our existing roles, and if we'd make any changes if we held higher roles within our organizations. I personally used it to contrast some existing thinking I've been having about 20th Century vs. 21st Century thinking that has been inspired by Dr.Umair Haque, and his recent talk at the Daytona Sessions in Sweden.

[UPDATE: An interesting article looking at how Amazon has created an 180* turnaround on their balance sheet (2002-2009) and how it used an unorthodox model of revenue growth vs. profit growth.]