x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Leave managing to the wise old owls - like me

Those of us of a supine persuasion could hardly be heartened by the news that Felix Rohatyn, a former titan of Wall Street, is returning to be a special adviser at Lazard, an investment bank.

Once upon a time it was all about leisure; now it's about work. Maybe it is because work is so hard to come by that it's back in fashion. Those of us of a supine persuasion could hardly be heartened by the news that Felix Rohatyn, a former titan of Wall Street, is returning to be a special adviser at Lazard, an investment bank. He was already considered to be on his last legs when I first started in financial journalism nearly 20 years ago, best known for his role in saving New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s. Since then he has been the US ambassador in Paris. He first joined Lazard soon after the Second World War, at the age of 20.

But now, at 81, back in the office? Perhaps my father, equally sprightly but pushing 85, should abandon his efforts to master golf and return to London Bridge where he worked many years before. Rather than spraying Titleists about the course he could be adding to the family fortune, thus freeing me to saunter about the links, where at least I stand a chance of making the occasional birdie. Has Mr Rohatyn's return anything to do with the financial crisis? There are those who say it was created by the bonus culture, others by the laxness of the credit ratings agencies or the idleness of financial journalists. (The latter I can vouch for.) But I also think it was fuelled by the youthfulness of many of the participants.

They were keen, they were eager, they had much to prove. Alas, they knew very little. It is said that financial crises occur when the final person who remembers the last one has retired. Just shows how quickly people retire these days, because they seem to come around much quicker than they used to. Stock market crashes are one a penny these days. The dotcom crash of 2000 was memorable, as was the Asian crisis of 1998, an incidental highlight being the amusing decline of Long-Term Capital Management. The hedge fund was set up by a couple of Nobel Prize-winning economists, and quickly dubbed "Short-Term Capital Management". And if I cast my mind back, there was the 1987 crash, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 22 per cent in one day: even those sober types at The Wall Street Journal might call that a plunge.

So you don't have to be that old to remember when the good times came abruptly to a close. You might even think that people working in an industry might study some of the lessons of the past so they wouldn't be forced to repeat them. While we must all admire the recklessness of youth - occasionally being made to defer to it - it has to be said that most young whippersnappers know less than old codgers. Why is this? Because as you get older, you learn things. If you are smart, you remember them.

Take management, for example. There are good reasons why people who are mature are placed in positions of power. Management is about common sense and sensibility. As a manager it might be tempting to behave as if you were in a fraternity house and hand out all the baubles to your pals, while ignoring the merits of others, but this will only infuriate the good people, who will leave. I have tried this management lark myself at various times. It's dreadful. You end up being an agony aunt for people who don't want to work, or who hate their neighbours. "Just shut up and get on with some work," you want to cry, but of course you don't. "I understand," you say, but you don't. If you could, you'd sack them all, but then you might have to do some work yourself.

Experience helps of course. Just as no insurance company will insure a young man aged 20 to drive anything more than a bicycle, nor should you make them a manager. Of course there are exceptions. William Pitt the younger became Britain's prime minister at the age of 24, but he had been to Cambridge when he was 14, so he probably found everything after that a bit of a let-down. Napoleon Bonaparte, France's greatest son with the possible exception of Zinedine Zidane, the headbutting footballer, was crowned first consul at the age of 30, and emperor of La Belle France at 34. But such examples are few and far between.

Why? Because management is akin to controlling children. It is only when you reach 35 or 40 that you begin to realise that work situations are much easier to control than the rabble that stay in your house and make infuriating demands. How to keep them under control? Threats, bribes and humour are the only way. And they are very hard to sack. Of course, you can always send them to boarding school, but these days that is ruinously expensive.

There are some types who are unmanageable. They always think they could do the job better, give you no credit for your decisions and jeer at your management-speak. They are called journalists. One of the reasons they are so hard to control is that those put in charge of managing them are often journalists themselves, without the first clue about anything. The best journalists are mavericks who sneer at authority. Put in power, they make Napoleon Bonaparte seem like a man seeking consensus before ordering a cup of coffee. Maybe what they need is a person of Mr Rohatyn's experience to keep them in check.

@Email:rwright@thenational.ae