CBI a closed-shop for McKinsey alumni?

The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) claims to be the UK’s largest employers’ group, although the IoD (Institute of Directors) might dispute this claim – they assume to be the mouthpiece for British management, forever putting their views for change to the UK government

They have just announced that Tony Danker – apparently ‘a business productivity chief’ – is to be their next director-general,  replacing Carolyn Fairbairn as CBI head at the end of this year – Danker is currently the chief executive of ‘Be the Business‘, a strangely-named non-profit business organisation set up to help drive productivity in the UK by Charlie Mayfield  (ex McKinsey), the former John Lewis chairman.

So how successful has this business productivity chief been in his current role as head of this ‘Productivity Leadership Group’ (PLG)?

Official UK productivity has stalled over the last two years or so since its inception – and we are unaware of any quantified claims for any productivity improvements made by the PLG – and that was before the pandemic struck

And how effective has another ‘productivity chief’, current Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn, been over the last five years given, early in her CBI reign, she stated that her top priority was ‘to make a positive impact on productivity’?

Again, official UK productivity has stalled over her time in charge – albeit causes of this stagnation are now called a ‘puzzle’

So, taking a longer view, ask just what difference the CBI, our self-appointed productivity leaders, have made to UK productivity ever since the national study I led in 1987, with CBI support – the first of its kind – which focussed on determining the UK’s current productivity level, the need to ‘close the gap’ with our G7 competitors, and ways to go about it

Sadly, the result over the subsequent 30 plus years is ‘the UK productivity gap remains largely unchanged’ and our productivity growth rates have even trended downwards

Nevertheless,  gongs have been dished out to nearly all CBI bosses over this same period, regardless of this record, viz:

  • Sir John Banham (ex McKinsey)
  • Sir Howard Davies (ex McKinsey)
  • Lord Adair Turner (ex McKinsey)
  • Lord Digby Jones
  • Sir Richard Lambert
  • John Cridland (why not Sir?)
  • Dame Carolyn Fairbairn (ex McKinsey)
  • Tony Danker (ex McKinsey) – a knighthood pending, surely?

So what are the common features between these heavyweights that distinguish them from we mere mortals? – certainly, they’re all bright, they can all ‘talk the talk’, they know management and consultant-speak backwards, they sound and look good on the telly or public platforms

But we also find five of the last eight DGs are ex McKinsey consultants, a consultancy renowned for recruiting the best of the best – but one also steeped more in strategic and structural business issues rather than the practical needs of productivity improvement and obtaining quantifiable results

The fact is official UK statistics suggest national productivity performance levels have been poor over the last 30 plus years – waste is still rife, existing resources could be used a lot better and new investment in new technology has been far too little – and this applies to all private and public sector organisations – and the CBI, in its role as a productivity leader, must bear much responsibility – but when do we hear the them banging any of these three drums of potential, especially the first two? – indeed, ask which of their services or website pages advise on action needed for major productivity improvements?

The mantra for the post pandemic  ‘new norm’ UK economy must surely be ‘outputs matter most, not inputs’ – and if our productivity leaders can’t produce the results needed, then others should be given a chance to do so, and be rewarded accordingly

So, let the last words go to Karan Bilimoria, the Cobra Beer boss, who is expected to succeed Tesco chairman John Allan as CBI president: “Tony has the experience and skills needed to help lead the CBI in what will then be a critical term ahead as Britain recovers from this shock and returns to growth and competitiveness.”

We sincerely hope Karan is right, and wish Tony well as DG, albeit hoping he will break the mould and make a positive difference

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