- IMD Business School
News Stories · Leadership

Fear is galvanizing

FT columnist Lucy Kellaway encourages new starts
July 2017

Celebrated for her bullseye wit, Lucy Kellaway gives her last talk at IMD before leaving the Financial Times after 32 years to become a teacher. The final keynote speaker of IMD’s 2017 Orchestrating Winning Performance shares what she has learned as a management satirist and why she put fear back into her life by making a new start.

Wisdom and wit

During her three decades as columnist at the FT, Lucy Kellaway has been a keen observer of the mores of business and management, and a brutal commentator. Her popularity is due to a combination of wisdom and wit, and light-hearted irreverence.

The minute she takes to the stage at IMD, she reigns in the audience with the request for a show of hands. She wants to know how many people have been working for their company for < 5 years, 10 to 20 years, 20 to 30 years, more than 30 years.

“Did you feel proud, or ashamed, to say that you have been working for the same company for more than 20 years,” she challenged.

Two years ago, when Lucy reached her Pearl anniversary at the FT, she asked her colleagues what 30 years of uninterrupted service would mean to them. They answered:

“You’re risk adverse.”

“You don’t have any imagination.”

“No one else would have you.”

She fired back: “If I had said to them: What does it feel like to be married to the same person for 30 years, nobody would turn around and say you’re risk adverse, etc…”

A relationship with an employer is a relationship and if you make it work for such a long time, you should both feel good about it, she assures.

On the other hand, Lucy has no time for people who declare that they are passionate about their jobs. They can like what they do, and even love their jobs, but passion should be reserved for strong attraction, or for the suffering of Jesus on the cross. “I don’t know what all of you do for a living,” she teases.

The fact is that most people don’t feel passionate about their jobs, they feel bored.

The bigger picture

When she asks OWP’s participants to name the aspects that have made working lives either better or worse, she observes, at the end of a long list, that although she is asking the question in a business school, no one has mentioned the quality of management.

“30 years ago, we didn’t have a clue,” and bosses, like hers, used to hide behind closed doors. “At least now, they’re trying.” But the working environment and relationships have changed and people don’t have the same laughs any more.

She attributes the change to the PC culture, to stress, a consequence of being connected 24/7 – not to working harder (“I don’t think we work harder, we just work less efficiently”) – and because expectations are too high: “They’ve gone through the roof.”

None of these trends are however nearly as significant to office workers as the minutiae that fill the day, the small sources of aggravation due to the behavior of the people that they work with. These became the mainstay of her additional role as an ‘agony aunt’ for the FT, problems that she would try to help solve, often with the assistance of the readers.

The ‘bullshit’ of corporate culture

The point she is making is that the culture of management has also changed. She sees herself as the FT’s ‘Editor-in-chief of Bullshit’ and is not afraid of the word (much to the chagrin of some of her US readers).

“The world has got sillier and sillier.”

To illustrate her point, she gives the examples of when PWC had the great idea to name its spun-off consulting arm ‘Monday’ (which was rescinded by Tuesday), or when JP Morgan directed its employees to call clients to tell them they loved them, or when Microsoft announced its new mission, “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

“To do more what? It’s utter drivel!” she explodes, adding that whenever a company starts talking about the planet, you know you’re in trouble.

KPMG also gets a swipe when its employees claim: “We champion democracy” or “We combat terrorism.” Not only is it a lie, claims Lucy, but it’s also the wrong way of looking at things. Instead of pretending to build cathedrals, why not take pride in our real skills as auditors or bricklayers, or whatever we do.

As for EY, they get the Lucy prize for euphemisms when they justified layoffs by saying: “We look forward to strengthening our alumni network.”

Denouncing hubris, jargon and nonsense

The soon-to-be former columnist admits that what she loved above all was to mock very senior individuals.

By poking fun, she knows that she has annoyed many people in the corporate world and mentions how, on occasion, it cost the FT dear in terms of advertising revenue. But she received steadfast support and was never censored or edited: “I don’t think there is any other media in the world that would allow a journalist to do that [she published the threat of the advertiser whose CEO had been offended and who ultimately did withdraw the advertising funds] and not only not get furious, but actually say: ‘Well done’.”

Lucy far prefers plain speak and she quotes Wang Long, the CEO of a meat company, who says, “What I do? I kill pigs and sell meat.”

“Wang Long, I want to marry you!” she exclaims.


Will any of this make any difference, she muses, and concludes that she can measure how little impact she has had during her time as a columnist by dint of the observation that even Starbuck’s Howard Schultz has taken no heed of her repeated attacks. His latest is “a coffee forward experience.”

She is however encouraged by the positive response to her recent column on the life-changing power of no. “No, is the new Yes! It takes character, commitment and courage to say no.” Get up in the morning celebrating all the things you’ve refused to do so that you can do well the few things that you’ve agreed to do. It’s a more efficient use of resources and don’t give any reasons, she advises.

“Make me happy and say no to something on Monday!”

Getting fear back again

“I’ve loved my job, but enough is enough.” She realized that it was time to move on when she had reached a ‘post-fear plateau’ after turning 50, when all the fear that she had experienced since the beginning of her career had evaporated and her motivation was not the same.

“Status used to be massively important, now I don’t care. I want to do something that is directly useful, specifically, to help individual kids.”

By mid-July 2017 Lucy will have left the FT for good and by September she will be training to become a teacher of mathematics in a London inner-city school, where she will be leading by example for Now Teach, the charity she cofounded to encourage other high-flying professionals to do the same.

Of course, she is worried, she is also worried for the 45 people who have joined Now Teach to become teachers like her.

“But fear is very useful, it’s brilliant: it has galvanized me!”