Letter from London 20th May 2006
I attended the Annual General Meeting of Shell (the corporation that I worked for for nearly forty years) last week and suspect that I was not the only person present to wonder if I had wandered into a parallel world which had the superficial appearance of normality – but was, in fact, almost completely alien. The AGM was being beamed to us in London from The Hague where the head office of the “new” Shell is located. The video and sound quality was good so we could see and hear the board clearly – although we could not see the whites of their eyes. After a while I began to wonder if in fact some new digital technology was in use that had created images of people who did not really exist – animatronic directors who had been programmed to behave in a certain way that was superficially convincing until you realised that nothing that they said made sense at all. The computer programming was very clever because when someone from the audience asked a question there was a brief moment as the speech recognition software cut in before the programmed answer came from the director’s mouth. Sometimes the answer actually related to the question but more often than not it related to a question that the software thought that the questioner should have asked (rather that the one that he actually did).
Shell has been through a hard time in recent years with scandals and dysfunctional behaviour and management incompetence that almost defies belief (one project has escalated in cost from $8billion to $20billion over the past year – an increase roughly equivalent to the GDP of Lebanon!). And yet with oil at $70 a barrel the profits carry on in and the directors richly reward themselves for their “success” – even the CEO they fired for mendacity and incompetence a few years ago rolls along happily on a pension of $750k a year. So institutions like Shell seem to suffer from mid-life crises and hubris just like we do as individuals. Shell is a long way from resolving their crises (indeed they seem in denial that there is still a problem at all – no mention was made of the reputation damage of the past few years at the AGM by the robot directors). The same can be said of Tony Blair and his tottering British government.
A little under a year ago Blair had an impressive week when he was the crucial factor in getting London the 2012 Olympics, when he handled with dignity and determination the London bombings and when as President of the G8 he hosted world leaders in Scotland. That week seems distant history now and there is the whiff of decay around Blair and his team. The real problem is not (just) that some of his ministers are inept and/or morally weak but that Blair himself is saddled with the ghastly reality of his foolish decision to back President Bush over Iraq. Unless and until, Blair admits that he was catastrophically wrong to have done this then there will be no closure. But one common factor of mid-life crises is that those who are mired in them never apologise and never explain. Perhaps Blair should look for a place on the board of Shell when he finally does retire as Prime Minister – he would certainly be at home there!