Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye to All That

Glub . . . glub . . . glub. At the very start of 2009, in my editor's note in the January e-Briefing newsletter, I predicted that the year ahead would be "Byrom-esque." That's a phrase I made up, drawing from an observation put forward by one of the grand corporate statesman of the 1960s and '70s, Fletcher Byrom (pictured), who said: "The best motivated person is a 5-foot 10-inch nonswimmer in 6 feet of water."

That's how I saw 2009 for corporate directors — that the crisis of credit, markets, leadership, and confidence would make board members feels like Byrom's splashing-like-mad nonswimmers in a 6-feet-of-water boardroom — i.e., in (slightly or utterly) over their heads.

That was a pretty good call. Many board members slipped below the surface, never making it through the year. We saw that at Bank of America, Citigroup, AIG, GM, and other troubled entities. When the markets hit their lows in March, it sure looked like lots of bodies were going to be pulled from the water.

That didn't happen, thankfully. In an ocean of troubles, directors played a vital role in helping keep their managements from going under. This fulfilled the second part of Byrom's aphorism: "If you're doing as well as you should, everyone's head ought to be a little under water all the time. People perform best under conditions of moderate tension."

Well, 2009 was a time of more than moderate tension. As we close out the year, let's recognize the survival instincts and crisis-inspired leadership abilities of those directors who made it through this Byrom-esque year.

Sadly, Fletch himself never made it through the year. This grand business leader of the old school — a CEO who led a major industrial corporation (Koppers Co.), served as a powerful presence on the boards of several Fortune 500 companies, moved comfortably between the business world and service to government, science, academia, and philanthropy, and operated as an all-around strategic adviser on the world stage — died in July at the age of 91. I got to know him a bit when I published a major article by him — a classic commentary on succession planning titled "A Message to My Successor" — in 1999.

So, goodbye to Fletch . . . and goodbye to all that splish-splashing of 2009. Can we rest our bobbing arms a bit now?