corporate psycho
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One of the more challenging thoughts to be aired recently is the theory that there are more psychopaths in UK company boardrooms than there are in Britain's mental hospitals.

That might be a tough one to prove, but I have it on the best authority that you are at least three times more likely to meet a psychopath in the higher echelons of business than you are in the population at large.

In any company of 1000 employees there should be about 10 - and the most fruitful place to go looking for them is in the executive suite.

These insights come courtesy of Holly Andrews of the Worcester Business School and a lecture that she delivered earlier this month at a conference which was organised by The Institute of Risk Management.

The wider point Ms Andrews was making was that a company can have all the risk management systems in the world, but it also has to know how to deal with people - and particularly people whose interests may not always align with the organisation.

This matters because risk control is the must-have fashion item of the age - rather like having an internet strategy was 10 years ago.

Surveys since the crash have found that only about 30% of companies said their risk-control systems gave them any warning of what was about to come, and were even less useful at telling them what to do about it.

So governance risk and compliance (GRC in the consultants' jargon) is the new hot topic.

Companies are pouring millions into it, without in many cases thinking through what they want to achieve and whether what they are designing will achieve it.

And there is no guarantee either that even if the risk officer highlights a problem, the chief executive will be inclined to pay any attention - particularly if it concerns one of the head man's pet projects.

So there is a serious possibility that an awful lot of money is going to be wasted.

Tell that to De La Rue which said this week that it is still struggling to control the fall out from a disaster with a contract to print bank notes for India, one of its biggest customers.

For reasons of human error, fraud, sabotage or it being a bad hair day - the company is not saying - the notes were printed on the wrong paper.

The Indians are not amused. The De La Rue chairman was quoted as saying that he could not even to this day begin to understand why some people had behaved the way they did.

That underlines the problem with so many risk-control systems. People will screw them up.

It does not help that they tend to be compliance driven, bureaucratic and mechanical whereas companies are people driven and biological.

Psychopaths have to make a living like the rest of us, given that only a handful flip and commit murder, and according to Ms Andrews they do so well because their characteristics align so very closely with the skills required for business leadership.

They have a superficial charm, which can be mistaken for charisma; they are prone to grandiosity, which equates with self confidence; they are manipulative, which means they have the ability to influence colleagues.

It's a thin line between being a con artist and being persuasive, or being a fantasist or a visionary thinker.

Distinguish between those who are willing to take risks and those who are impulsive, those who are action oriented and those who are thrill seeking or those who can take tough decision or those who suffer from emotional poverty?

One set of characteristics ticks all the boxes required by the headhunter, but those apparent strengths, were they nuanced slightly the other way, might prompt you to send for the men in white coats.

Does anyone really believe headhunters and human resource departments always get it right, or even get it right more than half the time?

There are obvious implications for corporate governance and risk control.

Ms Andrews points out that the external watchdogs on a company such as the auditors, investment bankers and analysts are equally susceptible to psychopath penetration - more so possibly because in those organisations anyone with a bit of charm tends to stand out, and charm and manipulation are the tools psychopaths use to get noticed, taken under the wing of a sponsor and promoted.

When they eventually get to the boardroom apparently the tell-tale signs are their poor people management, weak planning, unethical behaviour, lack of loyalty and a refusal to learn from mistakes.

Oh dear!