FT Innovative Lawyers 2013: Claudia Parzani

Claudia ParzaniOne of the ten winners in this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers survey, among over 600 participants, is Claudia Parzani of Linklaters, chair of corporate association Valore D and co-creator of In the Boardroom, an initiative she developed with GE Capital and Egon Zehnder to provide training and skills to prepare women for boardroom positions. Claudia also created the Breakfast@Linklaters network, featured in this year’s Client Service category.

Kudos to Claudia! I am proud to be participating in her boardroom program and honored to be in her circle.

Update & Correction (Oct. 17, 2013): post corrected to clarify that In The Boardroom was developed through collaboration among Linklaters, GE Capital and Egon Zehnder. The supporting member companies of Valore D can be found on this page.

The Digital Director. More from the Korn/Ferry Institute

Mina GouranLast February I referred you to some research from the Korn/Ferry Institute about what makes an exceptional non-executive director. That report underlined the importance of social networks and digital media in a board director’s understanding of social trends and their impact on the business – practically any business.

The Institute has now published a new report on The Digital Director, authored – like the previous one – by Senior Client Partner Mina Gouran (pictured). It is highly recommended reading for chairmen, nominating committees, and prospective board members. Here are a few quotes for your appetite. Enjoy it!

  • Among the FTSE 100, just 1.7 percent of non-executive directors (NEDs) would qualify as ‘digital’ — that is, executives who have spent the bulk of their careers either in companies where the Internet is central to the business model, or in strategic roles focused on leveraging the Internet.
  • There needs to be a rapid upswing in the number of digital NEDs so that the strategic issues posed by the digital revolution are exposed and examined. Navigation of this paradigm-shifting change, affecting the way we do everything, cannot be left to the executive alone.
  • In most cases, the new digital NED will arrive with less board experience than ‘traditional’ NEDs. Our analysis of FTSE 350 appointments, for instance, found that digital NEDs were, on average, 46 years old compared with 56 for the rest of the NEDs.
  • More of these digital NEDs are women (25 percent) as opposed to non-digital NEDs, of whom only 15 percent are women.

iOS 7, and why Android still wins for me

iOS 7 is now with us, and while we get used to its clean, spare look, let me tell you why I think Apple has missed a major opportunity to catch up with Android.

On the left is my iPad, recently updated with iOS 7; on the right, my Galaxy Note (admittedly a large device for a phone, but one that I carry everywhere because it fits in any purse and still isn’t too large to have a phone conversation), carrying Android 4.1.2 (which isn’t even a very new version of Jelly Bean). Here are three reasons why I prefer Android by far.

Numbers row

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You’ll notice something that makes all the difference in the world: with the Galaxy Note, if you are typing letters and numbers, you don’t have to keep toggling back and forth: they are all there on the same keyboard. As far as I’ve been able to find out he iPad, with all that screen real estate, does not allow me to have them together.

Predictive typing

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Tweeting, posting quick text updates, and writing in general are all much faster with the Android keyboard. Try it especially with longish words. In this example, I can pick “absolutely” from the suggestions row after typing just three letters. With iOS, it takes nine letters before it knows what I need.

Filling forms

 

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Don’t know about you, but to me it feels like I fill in forms all the time. There is, especially, one piece of information that goes into all sort of logins, order forms, verification screens and so on: my email address. Android offers it to me in the suggestions row after just four letters; in iOS, I have to type it out in full every time. This gets, shall we say, repetitive.

If you have suggestions to help me improve my iOS 7 experience, please let me know in the comments (“Leave a reply” link). Otherwise, I think the iPad will stay at home more and more often, while the Galaxy Note comes out with me.

 

Major Arcana. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Capalbio

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in a place I had long wished to visit, the Tarot Garden (Giardino dei Tarocchi) built by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in Garavicchio, Capalbio, southern Tuscany. Go there, by all means.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is easy to misunderstand; her feminism in a pop dress made her somewhat of a niche artist, known for her Nanas and her 1971 marriage to fellow artist Jean Tinguely, but without the gravitas of, say, a Louise Bourgeois. Yet, the Garden is such a masterwork that, after visiting it, it is hard to deny her greatness.

First conceived in 1979, the Garden was completed in 1996 and opened to the public in 1997. The concept for the Garden is a sculptural representation of each of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Most of the Arcana are cement figures covered in mosaic; some are structures you can walk into, some are mosaics inside another figure, some are simpler free-standing fiberglass sculptures. The choice of the Tarot, of course, carries with it the full weight of their spiritual and esoteric content; walking through the Garden gives you a glimpse of the artists’s struggle throughout the project, her loneliness as she lived inside the Empress for long stretches, and her nightmares as she worked on the Devil.

It also shows you Niki de Saint Phalle’s leadership: for it is not enough to have a vision, it is necessary for the artist to execute it. The project needed fundraising, getting help from friends, dealing with Italian bureaucrats (!), creating a team of artisans, technicians and crewmen ready to commit to the project for years at a time. And the Garden needs maintenance and preservation work every year, carried out by the Fondazione Giardino dei Tarocchi in the months when it is closed to the public, because it is a fragile work and without the necessary care it would be run over by the wilderness in the space of a few years. It is, I think, a triumph: you come out of it a bigger person than you walked in.

Don’t hesitate to bring kids. They will love it and, I hope, they will be able to go back as grown-ups, as they’re playing out the cards they have been dealt.

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: a review

AntifragileYou knew that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile was in my reading list: having read it, I now owe you a review. Taleb’s The Black Swan was a book I found not only clever and innovative, but engaging and somehow necessary (for reference, here is my 2007 Black Swan review); Antifragile, rather less so.

What is antifragile? Taleb has coined the neologism to describe a class of things that “benefit from shocks”: “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” It is a property of living beings that Taleb describes in mathematical form (convexity) and proceeds to apply to ideas, cultures, political systems and much more. He is least interested in the application of the idea to the “vulgar” world of finance, perhaps feeling that the events of the past few years have abundantly proved his point.

Figure 12

Notwithstanding the author’s ambition, scope and breadth of intellectual interests, let me say right away that this would be a bigger book if it didn’t hit the reader in the face repeatedly with bitterness, sarcasm and contempt. The deeply held opinions of the author may not have changed since his previous books; his tone, I think, has – and not in favor of readability. Just witness the ad personam taunting and teasing directed at certain people (Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Merton) and schools (“The Soviet-Harvard delusion”); the author’s scorn for entire professions, such as academia and management; his rants against large corporations, with the exception of Apple (!), and disdain of corporate leaders, except for Steve Jobs. Passages like this may be occasionally entertaining to the reader, but grow to be too much:

The historian Niall Ferguson and I once debated the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola as part of an event at the New York Public Library […] Neither Niall nor I cared about who she was (I did not even bother to know her name). […] My experience of company executives, as evidenced by their appetite for spending thousands of hours in dull meetings or reading bad memos, is that they cannot possibly be remarkably bright. […] Someone intelligent—or free—would likely implode under such a regimen.

The most convincing arguments in the book are about medicine and diet. Which is somewhat surprising from a non-specialist writer, until you remember that most medical and nutrition professionals have a bias for intervention (medicate, perform surgery, keep you on a diet, sell you supplements), when subtraction (not intervening and removing things instead) would often just work as well. They therefore live an implicit conflict of interest, the paradoxical result of which is “if you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor”. Taleb is right to call the reader’s attention to iatrogenics, the (usually hidden or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits. His ideas on diet also make sense: our bodies benefit not just from variety of nutrients, but from some “randomness in food delivery and composition” and some stress in the form of periodic deprivations (such as in the Orthodox lent) and occasional fasting. Even here, though, the author’s Levantine superiority complex (and don’t you forget that Steve Jobs’s ancestors came from Syria!) gets to be rather quirky:

I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean. […] As to liquid, my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old—so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee.

His brief critique of Singularity efforts follows logically from his arguments, but is delivered with the recurring scornful attitude. Well, at least he remembers the fellow’s name:

I felt some deep disgust—as would any ancient—at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. […] While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.

The least convincing arguments in the book are those in praise of entire economic systems based on “small is beautiful” (going hand in hand with the author’s love for the Swiss political system). Taleb rightly praises small entrepreneurs for their risk-taking: even if small businesses are individually fragile (as in the example of restaurants) or merely robust, even harboring a bit of antifragility (taxi drivers), their ecosystem (the restaurant scene) becomes antifragile. And he is right to point out that size can make you fragile: it is probably true that large projects are intrinsically over time and over budget due to intrinsic negative convexity, and that “the problem of cost overruns and delays is much more acute in the presence of information technologies”. Yet, one cannot seriously propose the London Crystal Palace (an overgrown conservatory built in 1850-51) as a model of architectural effectiveness, let alone human achievement, today.

It seems to me that in deliberately ignoring that it is mostly large organizations that create large economic surpluses, Taleb gets way too close to the current “degrowth” narrative, a crackpot economic proposition if there ever was one. While he openly despises large corporations and the people who work in them, he seems happy to write up his books on a computer built in a very large factory in China (as long as it is a subcontractor for Apple), to have his writings published by very large publishing houses, and to fly in planes built by large corporations and run by other large corporations (even while pointing out the fragility of air traffic control systems), for example to meet interesting people in Davos, at a large annual World Economic Forum gathering that would not exist if there were no very large corporations to sponsor it. Even the aforementioned New York Public Library is probably a much too large and bureaucratic organization for his taste, given that his model for an antifragile life and thinking is the “flâneur with a large private library”, no doubt acquired via independent (often antiquarian) booksellers.

With the exception of, say, drug dealers, small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products, ones that seem naturally and spontaneously needed; larger ones— including pharmaceutical giants— are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics, taking our money, and then, to add insult to injury, hijacking the state thanks to their army of lobbyists. Further, anything that requires marketing appears to carry such side effects. […] There is no product that I particularly like that I have discovered through advertising and marketing: cheeses, wine, meats, eggs, tomatoes, basil leaves, apples, restaurants, barbers, art, books, hotels, shoes, shirts, eyeglasses, pants (my father and I have used three generations of Armenian tailors in Beirut), olives, olive oil, etc.

Eyeglasses? Last time I checked mine, Luxottica had made those – and Luxottica is a very large multinational that has long abandoned its “small is beautiful” stage. Maybe Mr. Taleb orders his glasses from Warby Parker – fine. But do Warby Parker’s owners really not want to grow it into a much larger company? And does Mr. Taleb like a glass of vintage Chateau d’Yquem less than a Greek retsina, knowing that Chateau d’Yquem is owned by LVMH, a large corporation, and not a small artisan?

In summary, Antifragile is a thoughtful book with much to recommend it for, and you should read it if you like the author’s broad, non-academic erudition, share his reverence for ancient history and Mother Nature, and don’t mind his personal quirks too much; but the book’s flaws in tone of voice – and, sometimes, in argumentation – make it less strong than it otherwise could have been.

Behind Boardroom Doors. Essays by Betsy Atkins

BetsyAtkinsIt turns out there is some stuff that they don’t teach you in business school, and that you have to catch up on later, in your own self-directed continuing studies program. Corporate governance is one of those things. Luckily, I just read a book about corporate governance that isn’t a dry, legalistic tome about procedures and standards, but an account from the trenches of real board experience: Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director, by Betsy Atkins.

You can read my review here. The chapter I found most engaging is “My 16 Days on the HealthSouth Board”, adapted from an essay you can read here, as good an account of crisis management as I’ve ever read. If you have an interest in matters of corporate governance, and perhaps you’re just starting out as a board director, reading this book will be like going to dinner with a very experienced director and getting all the precious nuggets from her. Enjoy it!

There is really no summer at all. From John Cheever’s Journals

What year, what summer it is, it does not matter. John Cheever is struggling to write, tired, preoccupied with money and lust. A journal entry:

Yesterday. A hot, midsummer day, past haying weather. Hot. In the back rooms the smell of burning paper from the heat. Then how subtly the air becomes fresh at dark and how a perfectly round, pale moon comes out of the woods. There is the excitement of autumn in the cool damp air and the light of the moon, coming back across the field through the orchard, the rich smell of windfalls, the beautiful flavor of an apple – and the next day will be still, hot, the next moonlight night will seem like fall; this variety, this continuous and stimulating play on your senses and your memory. How subtly the autumn arrives on the northwest wind and the full moon. There is really no summer at all; the summer is an illusion. The flowers are formed on the goldenrod by the Fourth of July, the green of the maples has begun to fade. The calendar of flowers, gin bottles, steak bones.

Half a page later, it is the end of November and it is snowing.