Suiting Up

Whenever there’s a coup d’etat, whether political or corporate, a profusion of theories are brought forth to explain what really happened and why, and that has certainly been the case at Disney.

Behind the departures of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Rich Frank, runs one theory, lurks a carefully orchestrated power grab by the “corporate” sector of Disney at the expense of those on-the-line functionaries responsible for movies, TV, video and the like.

Whatever the validity of this explanation, it is fascinating that, even at entertainment companies, the so-called “corporate” sector has gained sufficient power to give credence to rumors like this.

It wasn’t that long ago that studios and networks were single-product companies, and just about everyone who worked for them was involved in either producing the product or marketing it. The top executives usually came out of one of these disciplines – Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox, for example, was the classical “production type,” while Frank Mancuso of MGM and UA is a distribution maven.

Survey the managerial landscape of American business today, however, and you find a fast-emerging new breed of leadership – “suits” with little background or interest in the actual products being turned out.

And where do these leaders come from? From “corporate,” that’s where – from that strange sanctum sanctorum of power to which few mortals have access.

And what do they know? Well, they claim to know how to run things better than the rest of us, that’s what.

The new corporate types bring an array of traits that are increasingly identifiable to those who labor at big corporations. First come the obvious things: The MBA. That’s de rigueur. Possibly the law degree as well.

Then come the patterns of speech: The English language managed to survive for generations before “biz speak” arrived, along with phrases like “incrementalism” or “pyramidal restructuring” or “delinearized integration.” Today you can’t just reorganize a department, you have to “re-engineer” it.

Since the new corporate types don’t have to think about sordid things like the product being produced, they can obsess about loftier issues. Take “head count,” for example. Thanks to the new corporate obsession with head count, a vast army of people now “sort of work for companies, only sort of gleaning any benefits and sort of owing their employers any loyalty.

Corporate types also busy themselves framing “strategic alliances,” which often involve entities with which their own companies have no common interests. If such an alliance doesn’t work, the corporatists can always “monetize” it. They like to monetize things, which is a polite way of making it disappear into fiscal cyberspace.

It’s very hard to get corporate types on the phone, mainly because they’re usually off at conferences or retreats, listening to some management guru advise them how to “grow” their businesses, not to mention their lives.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with all this, of course, except for the following: It’s very expensive. It’s also very distracting to those humble souls who are still trying to make or market something.

And most important, it’s become rather exclusionary. Just as lawyers have constructed a legal system that works for no one except other lawyers, so corporatists are constructing corporate structures that only serve themselves.

Some seers claim that the biggest problem with post-industrial America is that too much power has fallen under the control of dealmakers . People whose only objective is to merge and purge to achieve huge paper gains. By the same token, arguably the biggest problem with post-industrial corporations is that they exist only to project ever-mounting paper profits and to advance the fortunes of the corporate elite.

To be sure, there’s some downside risk to this tidy arrangement. For example, what happens to those old-fashioned types who actually take an interest in the product? Will they feel dis-incentivized? Will they actually defect?

Which brings us back to the Katzenberg-Frank syndrome: Fervid if not downright messianic, Katzenberg knew how to mobilize corporate power, but also cared passionately about making movies, just as the gracious, impeccably polite Frank cared about television and technology. Suddenly they’ve decided to pursue their own entrepreneurial ventures. Ventures they will personally direct, rather than taking orders from corporate functionaries.

The irony, of course, is that Michael Eisner, in his original incarnation, was a “product” person, not a corporate one. But some Disney insiders now suggest there’s been an incrustation of corporate power isolating Eisner from those people who actually create things.

Whether or not this is true at Disney, it’s certainly true at other big corporations in the entertainment and media business. And the result is similar to the Disney phenomenon – a significant fallout of talented, creative personnel. If that happens, things could get very lonely. So lonely, that some boards of directors may reach an alarming conclusion – that the best way to trim “head count” is to start at the top.

Anyone know how to monetize a resume?

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