• KPMG tries desperately to do “business as usual”.
  • Seeks to retain status as thought leader as scandals mount.
  • It’s just not working.

There is a great Yiddish word to describe extreme self-confidence: chutzpah.

It is usually used approvingly, but can be quite disparaging too, depending on the emphasis you use.

“He has a lot of chutzpah.” Can be said with great admiration of someone who has succeeded against all odds.

“Can you believe the chutzpah of that man?” That could be altogether less endearing.

You must admire the chutzpah of KPMG as it continues to publish so-called “thought-leadership” articles, apparently oblivious of the irony of a company on the ropes, not just in South Africa, dispensing leadership advice.

British MPs have found KPMG did not ensure Carillion, a failed facilities management and construction services firm, published information that was trustworthy enough for investors to rely on. In South Africa, public trust in KPMG has been eroded ever since it admitted its much-abused findings into the alleged rogue unit at SARS could not be relied upon.

KPMG is seeking to portray itself very much as carrying out “business as usual.” This morning there popped into my inbox: “Growing Pains: The 2018 KPMG Global CEO Outlook.”

It’s the sort of fluff sub-editors might once have used to fill the inside pages of newspaper. It looks like research, smells like research and it’s on the letterhead of a big four audit… I mean … consulting firm. (In that lies part of the problem. Following the collapse of Andersen Consulting in the wake of the Enron failure, firms were supposed to clearly separate the disciplines.)

Here is the question. If you can’t trust an audit by KPMG or the findings of a report into governance at a key state organ, why would you trust a survey it has compiled?

There may have been a time when KPMG said it had carried out a CEO survey that you might have  assumed the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Cutifani and Aliko Dangote had set aside time in their diaries to provide mutually beneficial insights for all humanity.

Not anymore.

We live in a post-fact world where frankly you need to question everything you are told.

Realistically, which high-pressure CEO is going to give of their time to participate in a survey and add their reputations to that of an organisation that clearly struggles to ensure its own teams can be trusted?

KPMG claims the survey “covers 1,300 CEOs in 11 key markets.” What does “covers” mean. Were CEOs interviewed? Did they give of their valuable time to sit across the table from an interviewer and answer questions? Were they asked to respond to an email? If so, who actually responded to an email?

That’s the trouble with reputation. Once it’s lost, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild, especially when you can no longer dismiss your travails as being an issue isolated to just one small, globally insignificant market like SA.

Turns out, there is real research. Real CEOs and some pretty significant ones, at that, did participate in the study. It may contain some nuggets of insight that stand to change the way you see the world. But would you bother to read it?

Christopher Nolan, the director of the World War II epic, Dunkirk, recently told a BBC interviewer that the reason he delivered all of his films on time and within budget is that it gave no-one any excuse to challenge his management of large, complex and expensive projects. Auditing, it turns out operates on the same principles. The moment there is even a shred of doubt in your credibility in one part of the business, why should you be taken seriously elsewhere?

Here is the intro to an apparently significant piece of international research that serious people with serious qualifications carried out: “The 2018 Global CEO Outlook finds chief executives optimistic about the economy and excited by growth opportunities offered by disruption. At the same time CEOs are managing their exposure to a range of headwinds. Driving growth will require CEOs to combine equal amounts of resourcefulness and realism.”

Seriously?

Is that the best they can do?

Bruce Whitfield is an award-winning multi-platform finncial journalist and broadcaster.

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