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We say we hate BS, but for leaders it can actually be useful

March 14, 2022, 10:29 AM UTC

Good morning,

When it comes to executive leadership, is there room for BS’ing?

My first instinct is to say no. Since I’m a journalist, the facts are my life. But, some research argues that BS in business isn’t really lying—and can in fact even be useful.

In a new Fortune report, CEOs are slammed for BS’ing—but it might actually be a brilliant strategyRob Walker explores this topic. Rob describes the communication technique as “reassuring yet indistinct, confident yet vague, positive enough to get you on board yet slippery enough to evade the consequences when everything goes sideways.”

I’m sure you’ve heard the BS technique on an earnings call. Actually, Kate Suslava, an accounting professor at Bucknell University, and co-author of the study, Benefits of Having a Female CFO, recently told me that shareholders react more strongly to the tone (verbal demeanor) of female CFOs than to that of their male counterparts in the Q&A session. Why? Less BS. Suslava’s research found that female CFOs typically give shorter, less upbeat, and clearer presentations, while using fewer clichés and more numbers than male CFOs. 

A prime example of BS at work? Rob offers up Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statements during a recent earnings call filled with disappointing quarterly results. “Although our direction is clear, it seems that our path ahead is not quite perfectly defined,” Zuckerberg said. Rob writes: “He added that his company’s flagship products, Facebook and Instagram, were adjusting to short-form video to fend off rival TikTok. ‘I’m confident,’ he asserted, ‘that leaning harder into these trends is the right short-term tradeoff.’” I don’t exactly know what “leaning harder” means? Do you?

Rob writes that BS’ing isn’t exactly lying. “Instead, the BSer is fundamentally indifferent to the truth of any particular statement,” he writes. “The goal of BS is to project or advance some other idea—our company has a vision for the future; our analysis is sober and trustworthy; we care about our customers above all; I’m smarter and wiser than you are, etc.—or simply to change the subject.”

Rob points to a recent study on the topic that correlates BS’ing skill and genuine smarts. He writes: “To quote a paper published last year on the subject by Martin Harry Turpin, from the University of Waterloo’s department of psychology, and several colleagues: ‘The ability to produce satisfying BS may serve to assist individuals in negotiating their social world, both as an energetically efficient strategy for impressing others and as an honest signal of intelligence.’”

Turpin told Rob: “Every single domain that relies at least partially on people liking you or people being impressed by you, BS is going to be applied as a strategy, or can be applied.”

So, is there room for BS? Read more about it here and let me know what you think.

(P.S.: One of the many subscribers of this newsletter is my mom, whom I still answer to, even as an adult. So, in this column, I used the abbreviation of BS. But you’ll get the full word when you read Rob’s piece.)


See you tomorrow.

Sheryl Estrada
sheryl.estrada@fortune.com

Big deal

A report released on March 10 by S&P Global Market Intelligence found the total global value of M&A transactions remained steady last year but slowed in Q4. In 2021, the total value of announced transactions exceeded $4 trillion, for the first time since 2015, according to the report.

Courtesy of S&P Global Market Intelligence

Going deeper

When Women Leaders Leave, the Losses Multiply, a recent report in Harvard Business Review, highlights a multi-year study by Potential Project. The research found that women leaders rank substantially higher than their male counterparts on the leadership qualities of wisdom—the courage to do what needs to be done, even when it is difficult, and compassion—the care and empathy shown towards others. This translates to business and financial results, according to the report. The researchers studied leaders and employees from approximately 5,000 companies in close to 100 countries.

Leaderboard

Harlan Kowitt was promoted to CFO at Hickory Farms, an American food gift retailer. Kowitt joined the company in October as interim CFO at the company. Prior to Hickory Farms, Harlan held multiple senior finance roles at U.S. Foods, Inc. including FP&A, Accounting, and Supply Chain Finance. His experience also includes time at Unilever in a variety of finance and purchasing roles, and in Audit with Ernst & Young.

Christopher J. Thome was named VP of finance and CFO at Graham Corporation (NYSE: GHM), a manufacturer of equipment for defense, energy and chemical industries. Thome joins Graham from Allied Motion Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: AMOT), where he served as corporate controller and treasurer. He brings nearly 30 years of experience in finance and accounting leadership, audit, public company financial reporting, treasury, operational accounting and shared services implementation.

Overheard

“We’re hiring thousands of individuals with criminal backgrounds into the workplace at our firm. That is another specific example of what we’re doing to make progress around tapping into the talent pools that have historically been left behind.”

— Brian Lamb, JPMorgan’s global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, discusses dealing with global labor shortages by taking unconventional approaches to hiring, as told to CNBC.

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