The Open Letter Main Street CEOs Should Write to Wall Street
Dear Wall Street CEO:
You’ve been taking it on the chin lately. On the other hand, the only CEO Obama has fired recently came from my side of town–Main Street—so maybe you’re not so bad off.
I have a proposition for you. For both of us, actually.
I, a Main Street CEO, am going to show you, Wall Street, how to create some real value out of “thin air.” I know, you think that’s your schtick, but hear me out.
From here on out, I propose to tell the truth about our earnings.
It’s that simple. We tell the truth about our earnings–warts and all. You come to believe it. You then no longer shave your estimates of our quarterly earnings, because we will no longer smooth them by moving things offsheet, or by tweaking policies from our financial subsidiaries.
Call it the “truth factor.” It really isn’t, though. It’s simply reversing the “suspicion factor” you’ve always had in place. Remember “quality of earnings?” Well, we’re going to provide the highest quality of all; not conservative accounting, but transparent accounting.
That’s the kind of financial value creation I know you understand. But let me go further—this policy is also going to create real value—as in higher productivity, lower costs, greater customer retention, high quality, better customer service—all that good stuff that actually drives business. Here’s how.
This morning, I’m going to announce company-wide that we are no longer including short-term incentives in our performance assessment plans. Here’s why.
Every sentient businessman knows that the dumbest way to run a business is to change plans every 3 months. The smartest way to run a business is to develop a long-term plan, based on long-standing business principles and policies and on core values. Then execute on it.
It is long-term plans, executed well, that produce the best short-term results—quarter after quarter after quarter.
But somehow, in my firm and nearly all others on “Main Street,” we lost track. It started out by our saying, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” and “what gets measured gets managed.” So we started measuring everything quarterly (OK, I admit–way shorter than quarterly).
Maybe we got that from you guys.
Now, it pains me to admit this, but somehow—I know, it sounds crazy—we just flat lost track of the simple idea that long-term management produces the best short-term results. And we started thinking that because we were measuring short-term, we had to manage short-term. After a while, nobody would take a 3-week risk. Or honor a 4-week deal. Or sign up for a 6-month customer plan.
Like I said, dumb. But it’s the truth. It’s what we did.
But no more. From now on, we’re managing for the long-term. That doesn’t mean we’re giving up on metrics—precise metrics are critical for all kinds of things, like trend analysis and trouble-shooting. It’s just that using them like a steel cable linking to performance pay and quarterly earnings is not going to be one of those uses.
Our CFO is going to stop focusing on quarterly numbers within and without the firm. Internally, we are going to very clearly explain the long-term basis for performance assessment and goal-setting we will be using. After that, anyone found to be rewarding behavior solely for the sake of short-term numbers will be hauled before the management committee and asked to justify it in strategic terms, or to explain, "What part of long term management for performance do you not get?"
And mark my word, our earnings will go up. Because long-term management fosters relationships, trust, continuity, efficiencies, effectiveness, scale economies, customer loyalty, and employee engagement. And that makes money the old fashioned way–by creating real value.
Externally, you and yours are going to have deal with greater earnings beta from us. The quarterlies are going to be more volatile. But we’re done interpreting numbers for you.
From now on, you have to be good enough at what you do to discern the underlying pattern and explain it (hint: it will be generally NorthEast). We’ll tell you up front our policies, and show you over time how we live up to our pledge of transparency.
So my question to you, Mr. Wall Street, is do you have the guts to play the new game? My cards are on the table, as of this morning. Where are yours?