Why I’m voting Remain

Since I started this blog 9 years ago, this is only the second time I have taken an overtly political stance, the first time being over the Scottish referendum. This is unquestionably the most important vote in my lifetime (at least, so far). As you won’t be surprised to learn, I am voting to stay in the EU. Here’s why.

Leaving the EU will damage the economy

Leave’s economic arguments were completely destroyed weeks ago. Their claim that the EU costs Britain £350m a week was taken apart by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and their continued use of it earned them a rebuke from the Treasury Select Committee and strong criticism from the UK Statistics Authority. The £100k net contribution would be obliterated by the post-Brexit economic slowdown and the resulting loss of tax revenues. Even the most optimistic scenario would see the government having to increase borrowing or find £40 billion a year in taxes or spending cuts. There is an unprecedented level of agreement among economists about this. Almost all of them believe Brexit would be bad for Britain’s economy and for the rest of the world’s too. As Paul Johnson said, economists are quite literally losing sleep over this. They only disagree about whether it would be horrendous or merely unpleasant. As for the claim that £33 billion could be saved by getting rid of EU regulation, that is just downright dangerous.

The UK should be a leader in the world 

If all your friends are warning you against doing something it is a good idea to stop and reflect. Brexit advocates insist that the UK’s status would not be diminished outside the EU but if all the people we need to influence are telling us that we will lose influence, then we will lose influence. It won’t be easy to walk tall on the world stage if leaders and opinion formers in every other country think we have taken leave of our senses. The UK, with its historic links to the Commonwealth and the USA, forms a bridge between these countries and the EU. That is one of the reasons why Britain counts for so much in the world. Why would we want to jeopardise that just because we are a bit cross about a few regulations? Last night, our friends lit up their buildings with our flag. They want us to stay because they can see what is at stake. We would all be poorer if Britain stormed off into not-so-splendid isolation.

Leaving the EU will probably break up the UK

Leaving the EU increases the likelihood of the UK breaking up. It will almost certainly lead to renewed calls for Scottish independence. Assuming we can keep Wales and Northern Ireland on side, the country will then take on its 16th century shape. It will give the beginning and end of Great Britain’s story a symmetry that will be pleasing to historians. It is curious that those who shout loudly about loving their country and who ostentatiously wrap themselves in the Union Jack may be about to take a decision that ends Britain’s 400 year history. They keep saying they want their country back but I wasn’t aware we had lost it in the first place. If we vote to leave, though, there is a good chance that we will.

The EU is, on the whole, a Good Thing

Sure, it might have some irritating regulations and it can appear to be slow and cumbersome but, on the whole, it is an incredible achievement. And not just because we can trade with and work in 27 other countries. The EU didn’t win the Cold War but it certainly won the peace afterwards. When I was born, much of Europe was under some form of dictatorship. Communism held sway in eastern Europe while Greece, Spain and Portugal were fascist autocracies. For a time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it looked as though some countries might just swap one form of authoritarian rule for another. The EU prevented that. By insisting on governmental and human rights reforms as the price of membership it ensured that the newly liberated countries became democracies. The free and democratic Europe we have today is largely a creation of the EU. We should be proud of that.

Brexit is a once and for all decision…

It is what Jeff Bezos would call a Type 1 decision; one that is irreversible. Like a door with a handle on only one side, we can go through but we can’t get back again when it slams behind us. To persuade people to go through a one-way door you need a really compelling story. The Leave campaign haven’t given us one. They have come nowhere near. Leaving the EU would be taking a massive gamble for no discernible payoff. As Martin Lewis says, if you look at it as a risk management decision,  “A vote for Brexit is unquestionably economically riskier than a vote to remain.”

…whereas staying in is not

If we decide to stay in, we can always come out at a later date. It is extremely unlikely that any of the Leave campaign’s paranoid fantasies will actually come true. There will probably never be a European army and, even if there is, Britain won’t be forced to participate. Further integration, at least for those outside the Euro, is looking unlikely too. I’m not even convinced that there will be any new members admitted in the near future. Turkey’s accession is a long way off. But let’s suppose some of these things were to happen and they changed the situation so much that Britain felt its position was no longer tenable. We could have another referendum (or not) and just leave. For all the huffing about sovereignty, the UK is still a sovereign state. The very fact that we are having a referendum  is proof of that. Leave’s claims about sovereignty have been dismissed as dishonesty on an industrial scale by constitutional law professor Michael Dougan. Even if we vote to stay in today, we can still leave at some point in the future. Nothing is going to change that.

Immigration is a red herring

This has been Leave’s trump card but, in a TV debate earlier this week, Frances O’Grady said, “The Leave campaign are selling people a big con.” She’s right. They have been telling people that leaving the EU would reduce immigration while, at the same time, promising black and Asian voters that it would mean more of their relatives would be able to come to Britain. They can’t have it both ways. The truth is that Britain is an international economy containing one of the world’s global cities. Large multinationals base many of their staff here. This country has the second highest number of intra-company transfers in the world, accounting for 60,000 arrivals last year. For an economy like ours, immigration is a feature, not a bug. Restricting immigration from the EU would either just increase numbers from elsewhere or choke off the labour supply to the point where companies stared taking their jobs overseas. Every developed economy has high levels of immigration. Compared to the rest of the OECD, the UK’s numbers are not extraordinary. The only way this country could get immigration below 100,000 would be to become such an economic basket-case that no-one wanted to come here. That would be the case whether or not we were inside the EU.

So today, I’m off to vote Remain. In fact I’m doing more than that. I will be spending today helping to get the vote out. Leaving the EU would be a senseless and catastrophic act of self-harm. I’m going to do what I can to stop that happening.

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Post-Brexit Britain: a deregulated pariah state

A post-Brexit Britain would become a deregulated pariah state, warns Adam Posen:

In the face of a post-Brexit recession, a new government would scramble to be seen to act in retaining or creating jobs. Given the blow to trade and corporate investment, and ongoing uncertainty, it would be near impossible to do anything quick in the real economy; fiscal stimulus would be ruled out with a fallen currency and rising interest rates.

The administration would resort desperately to regulatory arbitrage. It would pull the cord on the most obvious parachute in reach: a race to the bottom by financial regulators and supervisors, hoping to attract or keep financial services.

A post-Brexit government would be desperate to be the world’s banker and go all out for market share. That is a very real threat to global financial stability. It would go beyond having AIG Financial Products blowing up markets and billionaires from a lot of nasty places putting their money in UK real estate. It would further unbalance the British economy and reinforce the UK’s increasingly pariah status after exiting the EU.

Deregulation would be a desperate gamble to attract business to an economy teetering on the brink of recession.

Far fetched? Not really. This is pretty much what the Leave campaign have said they will do. They claim to be able to save £33 billion* by removing EU red-tape but look at the second most expensive regulation on that list. It’s the CRD IV package, which apparently costs £4.6 billion a year.

Now the The CRD IV package is the EU regulation which brings into force the Basel III international accord on banking capital requirements. Of all the regulations brought in after the financial crisis, this is probably the one that offers us the most protection from a repeat of 2008. Capping bonuses and splitting up the banks are gimmicks which will make next to no difference but forcing banks to increase their capital might at least mitigate the risk of further bank failures. True, this sort of regulation hurts bank profits but look what happened last time they lent with gay abandon. Do we really want to be the only country that doesn’t implement Basel III? Do we want to become a base for pirate financial institutions?

I have been hoping that, at some point during the campaign, when a Leave advocate mentioned the £33 billion in red tape, an interviewer would say, “So you want to go back to the pre-2008 banking system that led to the crash do you?” Because that’s the implication of removing the regulation. CRD IV is one piece of red-tape that makes us all a lot safer.

The UK economy is already one of the least regulated economies in the world. Any more of it, especially in financial services, would, as Adam Posen says, “be creating a huge hole in the financial safety net”. It’s a completely mad idea yet the Brexit supporters are still banging on about the amount of money we would save from deregulation and no-one has really called them out on it.

A lot of this apparently expensive red-tape is there for a good reason. A deregulation race to the bottom would be risky and would further alienate a lot of our allies. Becoming a pariah state is not the future most of us want for this country but it’s what we will most-likely get if we vote Leave tomorrow.

*The figure comes from a report by Open Europe who have NOT said that Britain could save this amount by leaving the EU.

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Leave campaign rots from the head

The Treasury Select Committee’s report on the EU Referendum campaigns was reported as a plague on both your houses because both sides were criticised for their claims. Look at it more closely though and it wasn’t. The chair’s comments give a flavour. He described Remain’s claims as “a few grains of truth” and a “mountain of exaggeration” while it called Leave’s persistence with an outright falsehood “deeply troubling”. The committee delivered a sharp rebuke to Remain but was utterly scathing about the Leave. It criticised the behaviour of the campaign’s leaders in some of the strongest terms I have seen in a parliamentary report:

In their treatment of this Committee, neither Mr Elliott nor Mr Cummings, as individuals, have fulfilled Vote Leave’s commitment, made in their successful application to the Electoral Commission, to “create a valuable legacy for the UK’s democratic process”. Their conduct has been appalling.

If Mr Elliott and Mr Cummings consider that the Committee’s evidence-taking process has been protracted, uncomfortable or harmful to their cause, they have only themselves to blame.

Persistent refusals to appear and ad hominem (and false) attacks on the committee chairman showed a contempt for the entire process. This dismissive attitude to MPs and to anyone who asks awkward questions has typified the Leave campaign over the past few weeks. This sort of behaviour ups the ante for those further down the chain. If the leaders of the campaign thinks it is OK to behave like this, those with a lower public profile will take that as permission to be that bit worse. I have been astonished by some of the things I have seen coming from people who really ought to know better. Someone claiming to be a former FT journalist tweeting and retweeting hate-filled bile. People who, apparently, make their living as writers, filling their timelines with the most abusive and threatening language. I wonder whether, in their excitement, some people might have damaged their professional reputations.

And this ups the ante yet again. If ‘proper’ journalists and writers think it’s OK to do this sort of thing, then the gobs-on-sticks who infest the lower regions of Twitter think it’s OK to go that bit further, spew out the vilest abuse and issue death threats. The tone of the campaign has sunk so low that even Americans, plagued as they are with their own post-truth demagogue, have noticed.

While the media, and especially the BBC, have tried to be balanced by criticising the behaviour of both sides, it is clear that most of the nastiness has come from Leave supporters. It started at the top. Once you flick a metaphorical v-sign in a parliamentary committee, it legitimises contempt for those with opposing views and gives the really nasty people permission to do their worst.


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Back to the 50s, the 1550s

What would a standalone Britain look like? We don’t really know because there has never been one. For its entire history, Great Britain has been part of something bigger. By the time King James united England and Scotland under one crown the imperial project was already under way. By the time the two countries were formally united, England had a sizeable empire. Scotland had tried to build a rival empire and its failure forced it into unification with England. Great Britain was a product of empire.

It wasn’t plucky little Britain that stood alone against Hitler in 1940, it was a global superstate called the British Empire. It was a global superstate on its last legs but it was still able to marshal enough resources and manpower to keep the Nazi state at bay until America and Russia joined the war.

Then, almost as soon as that empire was dismantled, Britain joined another larger entity, the EU.

So to find a standalone Britain you have to go back much further. As Fintan O’Toole says, you have to go back to that period after the kings of England had lost their territories in France and before the union of crowns in 1603; in other words to Tudor England. A post-Brexit Britain is very likely to resemble the Tudor realm territorially. If Scotland quits the union, we are left with England, Wales and a sliver of Ireland, not that different from the England of Henry VIII. Instead of going back to the 1950s, it will be back to the 1550s.

We tend to think of Tudor England as a golden age when the country was on the rise. It is true that, towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, England enjoyed some military successes. For most of the period, though, England was weak, walking a diplomatic line between France and the Hapsburg domains. But Tudor England was a weak country growing stronger whereas post-Brexit Britain will be a strong(ish) country growing weaker. It is true, as the Leave campaigners say, that a post-Brexit Britain will still be a large economy with significant military and political clout but it will still be much diminished. For historians, this will give Britain’s history a pleasing symmetry. As it saunters off the world stage, the country will assume a similar shape to that which it had when it burst onto the world stage 400 years earlier.


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Britain will lose its influence after Brexit

There hasn’t been much discussion of foreign policy during the referendum campaign. This is odd because a lot of foreigners are taking an interest in what might be about to happen. And most of them think we have taken leave of our senses. The American newspapers are aghast. Insane, a colossal blunder and a fantasy are some of the more polite comments. “There’s only so much nastiness a country can endure before it curdles into violence,” warns the Atlantic.

We can pretty much take it as read that Britain’s influence in the world would diminish if this country were to leave the EU. The Brexit advocates strongly deny this, of course, but their huffing protests remind me of those feedback conversations you have with people at work.

An aggressive and boorish manager will almost always deny that he is aggressive and boorish. Anyone who says he is aggressive and boorish will be condemned as a liar. But whether or not a person is aggressive and boorish is a subjective judgement and it depends on how people on the receiving end of that behaviour perceive it. You find yourself having to explain to the manager that it doesn’t really matter what he thinks. If the rest of the team see him as aggressive and boorish then that is his problem not theirs.

So it is with influence. Again it is one of those subjective judgments that depends entirely  on the impact you have on others. You only know whether you have influence over people by the way that they respond. If all the people you are trying to influence tell you that you are losing influence, then you are losing influence.

And that is exactly what they are saying. The current US President, the future US President and the leaders of Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Japan, China and India are all telling us we would have less influence if we left the EU. As the Australian’s editor remarked, most world leaders believe that leaving the EU would be an act of “strategic recklessness”.

The opinion of most respected world leaders, financial markets and the bulk of British business overwhelmingly favours the Remain cause. It is advanced with a strange mix of clarity and desperation by Prime Minister David Cameron. The sense from these quarters is unmistakeable: that Brexit is a dangerous step for Britain and the world.

Why is opinion so strong? It is because of respect for Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, and regard for its voice and influence. The EU without Britain will have a huge hole. Britain is usually a source for good, constructive and sometimes courageous policy. These leaders, like Cameron, fear Brexit will leave Britain weaker, not stronger.

You can argue about the economic models and how far they can reasonably predict the impact of Brexit. Nobody can really be sure. On the question of international influence, though we can be very sure. There are no graphs and charts in this post because the only way you can measure influence is by the impact it has on others. The leaders and opinion formers in most of the world’s major economies are telling us that Britain will have less influence if it leaves the EU. That is the only measure that matters. If the people we most need to influence tell us that we will lose influence, then we will. It’s as simple as that.

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The fiscal vandalism of Brexit

The reaction of Conservative MPs to George Osborne’s warning of a post-Brexit emergency budget makes me wonder where they have been for the past five years.

We do not believe that he would find it possible to get support in parliament for these proposals to cut the NHS, our police forces and our schools.

If the chancellor is serious then we cannot possibly allow this to go ahead. It would be unnecessary, wrong and a rejection of the platform on which we all stood.

Eh, come again?

The platform on which they all stood was, first and foremost, about eliminating the deficit. That was the flagship Conservative policy in 2010 and 2015. They used public debt, very effectively, as a stick to beat Labour with. Everything else was subordinate to the need to reduce the deficit and start ‘paying down the debt’. If that meant cuts to the NHS, police forces and schools, so be it. Those were the sort of hard choices we’d have to make. One of the letter’s signatories, Liam Fox, has called for an end to the NHS budget ring fence. Another, John Redwood, complains frequently about the slowness of deficit reduction.

The government’s plan to eliminate the deficit by 2019-20 is a tall order as it is. If the economy were to take even a short-term hit after Brexit, which it almost certainly would, the only way to meet the target would be with more tax increases or spending cuts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies looked into this in detail last month. They concluded that the impact of Brexit on trade and investment would slow the UK’s economic growth down, thereby reducing tax revenues. The £8 billion net contribution to the EU, that Leave campaigners have already ‘spent’ many times over, is largely irrelevant. It is a tiny amount when compared to total public spending. The IFS calculated that, even if GDP growth is only 0.6 percent less than forecast, the £8 billion would be completely wiped out.

The economic shock of leaving the EU would, says the IFS, make reducing the deficit by the end of the decade a lot more difficult. Even allowing for the extra £8 billion, under its most optimistic scenario, the IFS reckons that a further £15.5 billion of tax rises or spending cuts would be needed on top of the £25 billion or so the chancellor already has planned. So about £40 billion then.

That would take us back into the looney tunes spending cuts territory of December 2014, before George Osborne gave himself an extra year to eliminate the deficit. It would, indeed, be economic madness, and could well turn a slowdown into a recession but Dr Fox and Mr Redwood weren’t saying that 18 months ago.

It’s really not difficult this. Even a mild economic shock, and it’s hard to see how we could pull off Brexit without one, will make the already tough task of eliminating the deficit that bit tougher. If you are going to oppose any more spending cuts or tax rises, you must accept that the deficit reduction timetable will be pushed well into the next decade. If you are not going to allow the chancellor (whoever may be in the job by then) to increase taxes or cut spending even further, then you must be in favour of more debt. There’s a headline that didn’t get written last week, ‘Fox and Redwood demand MORE public debt.’ That’s a justifiable economic argument, of course, but it’s one they have been violently opposed to since the end of the last decade.

Brexit would, in all probability, leave the UK with a worse version of the fiscal dilemma than it already has. It would kill off any remaining hope of eliminating the deficit by 2020 without a politically unacceptable tax hike or the closure of parts of the state. With our economy already wobbling, even a small hit to GDP would be enough to blow an even bigger hole in our public finances. It really isn’t worth the risk.

Post Brexit Dilemma


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Building a better hierarchy: Why middle managers matter

It’s become fashionable over the years to have a go at middle managers. They tend to get blamed for everything that is wrong in an organisation. These plodding mediocrities stifle innovation. Even if they don’t stop change altogether, they slow it down, as the initial energy and enthusiasm gets sapped by layers of bureaucracy. Wouldn’t it be better if the C-suite could just engage with the front line without all those jobsworths getting in the way? Really, it would be better if they were all fired. They’ll none of ’em be missed.

The article criticising middle managers is a hardy perennial. It’s second only to those tedious pieces making fun of corporate jargon. Stuck for what to write in your business column this month? Have another go at middle managers.

The idea that organisations can get rid of middle managers is seductive and aligns neatly with many other management ideas that have appeared over the last couple decades. Get the right culture, the right values and engage the employees and people will, y’know, just kinda do stuff without needing to be asked or told. Imbue them with the corporate ethos and they will need a lot less managing so you can save yourself a fortune. Or something like that.

I first heard the terms ‘delayering, downsizing and rightsizing’, usually in the same sentence, sometime around 1990 when I was a rookie HR manager. As one of my colleagues quipped at the time, “Downsizing, rightsizing and capsizing.” Many a true word, for capsizing is often what happens when organisations try to do without middle managers.

As Harvard’s Jule Wulf found, when layers of management are taken out, decision-making is rarely devolved to the front-line. Instead, the decisions get pushed up the hierarchy. Flattening the structure can therefore have the opposite effect from that which it promised.

Removing middle managers in support functions isn’t always an easy win either. Reduce the number of HR managers and you find people with titles like ‘resource manager’ appearing in frontline functions. If you take away central HR, IT or finance support, line managers have a habit of just hiring their own.

Even Google found it couldn’t manage without middle managers. As Stanford’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao commented in their recent book:

Google’s founder and CEO Larry Page is exhibit one. As we wrote in Scaling Up Excellence:

‘Page has been described as “obsessed with making Google work like a smaller company.” In 2001, when Google grew to about 400 people, Page decided that middle managers were creating complexity and friction – symptoms of John Greathouse’s “Big Dumb Company Disease.” So he got rid of all of them. More than 100 engineers reported to a single overwhelmed executive. Frustration and confusion was rampant. Without those middle managers, it was nearly impossible for people to do their work and for executives to grasp and influence what was happened in the company. Page learned the hard way that a hierarchy can be too flat and that middle managers are often a necessary complexity.’

Sack too many managers and even an organisation with a world-beating product will start keeling over.

Despite disliking hierarchy, Bob Sutton has come to the conclusion that it is essential and that less of it isn’t necessarily better:

I have always despised hierarchies in my heart, but this research taught me that they are good and necessary – of course some are good and others are bad, but spreading and sustaining excellence depends on having an effective pecking order.

I still feel a bit ambivalent about it, but the evidence is overwhelming.

Hierarchy is inevitable. As our Stanford colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens show in their detailed review of research on hierarchy, although the forms it takes vary wildly, it is impossible to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power. Whether researchers study people, dogs, or baboons, hierarchies are evident after just minutes of observation. And when strangers meet for the first time, a hierarchy of leaders and followers begins to emerge immediately. This rapid development of pecking orders is seen, for example, in groups of college students who meet in psychology experiments and when strangers start chatting on the street corner – leaders, followers, and other signs of status differences nearly always emerge (along with more subtle roles such as “joker,” “hero,” and even “scapegoat”).

Gruenfeld and Tiedens conclude: “When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.”

Organizations and people need hierarchy. While there is no doubt that some hierarchies are better designed than others, an interesting test is what happens when there is little or no consensus about who has more — and less — power. Gruenfeld and Tiedens describe a series of studies showing that when such agreement is absent (so the nature of the formal or informal pecking order is not clear), members become less committed to their groups, less productive and effective, dysfunctional competition for status emerge, and coordination and cooperation suffer.

Perhaps this is why, when it comes to getting rid of managers, a lot more has been said than done. Data from the recent Working Futures report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) suggest that, since I first came across the term ‘delayering’ all those years ago, the percentage of the workforce in management roles has increased. Despite all the talk of the end of middle management, UKCES expects this trend to continue for the next decade or so.

managers 2016

Source: Working Futures, UKCES, April 2016. Chart shows managers in employee roles as a percentage of all in employment.

If there has been any removal of middle managers in UK organisations, then, it seems it didn’t last very long. Some might have gone but they were simply replaced with others.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As organisations have become more complex, managing them has become more difficult. When production was standardised, it was easier for one person to manage a lot of people. Nowadays, many process jobs have become automated. Managers are more likely to be running smaller and more diverse teams of professionals. This is the job polarisation we have heard so much about. The proportion of professional and technical staff in the workforce has risen significantly. This requires a different sort of management.

The thing about middle managers is that good ones can make a real difference. A five-year study by Stanford and Utah universities found that, in teams of ten people, replacing a low-performing boss with a high-performing boss raised productivity by 12%. The exquisitely titled study People and Process, Suits and Innovators by Wharton’s Ethan Mollick found that, far from stifling creativity, good middle managers are what makes it happen:

[V]ariation among middle managers has a particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.

[I]t is the individuals who fill the role of middle managers – the “suits” – rather than the creative innovators that best explain variation in firm performance.

The results also show that middle managers are necessary to facilitate firm performance in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.

The creatives might come up with the ideas but it is the quality of the middle managers which determines whether or not those ideas will actually get off the ground.

And, rather than blocking change, your middle managers can, as Stanford’s Benham Tabrizi found, be the very people who make it work.

So perhaps, as Octavius Black said earlier this month, it is time to rehabilitate the middle manager:

Stuck in the middle, it’s no surprise that 68% of managers wish they weren’t. This matters.

It matters because the middle manager holds the key to the most pressing challenge for business: productivity. The evidence is emphatic: a company that turns the middle manager from heretic to hero stands to gain an insurmountable competitive advantage.

Organisations could start, he says, with some proper investment in their development:

Most businesses spend less on training their managers than they do on the office furniture and PC they give them to work with.

Those that don’t may come to regret it:

The middle manager has been left to drift in the corporate wilderness. The wise leader will quickly welcome middle managers back as the company’s saviours, before they realise that we need them more than they need us.

Middle managers are like the skeleton of an organisation, the thing that gives it structure and holds it together. It makes far more sense to invest in them than to run them down. As Bob Sutton put it (my emphasis):

As you scale an organization, getting rid the hierarchy – or even assuming that a flatter one is better – is the wrong goal. Your job is to build the best hierarchy you can.

Managing without middle managers is something that few (if any) organisations have been able to pull off. The idea of a middle manager free organisation is just another piece of management mumbo-jumbo. Fashionable and zeitgeisty it may be but it’s still nonsense. Middle managers are what makes an organisation work. It makes sense to build the best hierarchy you can.

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