Animal Instincts in the Business World

November 18, 2021

Interesting creatures and dazzling species in the jungle of the corporate world

Today’s fiercely competitive corporate world – seemingly governed by the law of the jungle where only the strongest survive – is inhabited by somewhat peculiar yet highly interesting creatures.

Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, has closely scrutinized the most conspicuous specimens.

Business animal unicorn jumps in the air
The world of business animals is whimsical and wonderful.

Read on for a concise overview of the most dazzling representatives of the business animal kingdom ranked by weight:

1. White Elephants (up to 6 Tons)

Business animal elephant

White elephants symbolize gigantic projects with little economic value, such as buildings erected for major sports events.

Rarely used stadiums in different stages of decay can be found in many countries today. But there are also white elephants among staff: company employees who don’t serve any function. And they are also encountered in politics and quasi-public enterprises. In a business context, two strategies for dealing with white elephants have proved effective:

  1. Just like in sports, regular training will help (ineffective) heavyweights shed extra pounds. When white elephants are put to work in a suitable new setting, they can turn into real busy bees.
  2. As difficult as it may be to bid an “endangered” species farewell, it might be worth the initial pain in the long run.

2. Narwhals (up to 1.5 Tons) and Unicorns (Weight Unknown)

Business animal unicorn

Unicorns (or narwhals where Canadian companies are concerned) are start-ups founded after 1999 that have reached a market value of more than 1 billion US dollars. Famous examples such as Airbnb and Uber reveal why they have prevailed in a highly competitive environment: their innovative offers combining hitherto unlinked products and services develop markets established players never even thought of. Unicorns are quick to identify newly formed markets where competition is still low. Their business (a technology, product, and/or business model) is usually based on a smart innovation that is, at least for the time being, a USP.

3. Sharks (up to 1.1 Tons)

Business animal shark

The seas adjacent to the jungle are home to numerous sharks. Tirelessly roaming the underwater world, they are always on the lookout for prey. Sharks also play a major role in the finance world: as aggressive and bloodthirsty competitors, they jump at every opportunity to make a killing or carry out a hostile takeover. To prevent such a takeover, some companies have so-called “shark repellents” in place: provisions in their charters or bylaws that make a potential takeover less attractive or profitable to the acquiring firm.

4. Bulls (up to a Ton) and Bears (up to 750 Kilograms)

Business animals bull and bear

In the business world, bulls and bears always come together. While a bull market is a market where stock prices are rising, they are declining in a bear market. The terms have a historical background: in the past, Californians had bears and bulls fight each other. The bull won if it threw the bear up into the air with its horns, which is why it symbolizes rising prices today. The bear, on the other hand, was victorious if it swiped its humongous paws down, which is why falling prices are considered bearish.

5. Cash Cows (up to 750 Kilograms)

[Translate to English:] Business animal cash cow

Wouldn’t we all love to have a cash cow, producing a steady stream of income at quite manageable costs? You will be well advised to treat these “animals” with great care; after all, happy cows produce more milk, which, in turn, keeps the farmer content. But be careful: such extra care can result in other animals (= less profitable areas) of the farm being neglected, particularly where large farms are concerned. In the long term, this will have negative consequences.

6. Gold-Pooping Donkeys (up to 500 Kilograms)

Business animal gold-pooping donkey

A species so rare in the business world that not a single confirmed sighting has been reported to this day. And still, they are extremely popular – every company wishes it could call one its own. Life would be so much easier then!

7. Zebras (up to 450 Kilograms)

Business animal zebra

In the business animal kingdom, zebras are closely related to unicorns, but there is one important thing that sets them apart: zebra start-ups do not care so much about profits and exponential growth at all costs but instead aim for sustainable value-generation and approaching issues from a social impact lens. They are not out to graze the meadow down to its roots but use resources in a considerate manner. They are profitable and socially sustainable at the same time. What’s more, they would never abandon one of these two ambitions in order to attain the other. Naturally, zebra companies, among which numerous social entrepreneurs can be found, also care about growth, but only if this growth constitutes a positive impact on the economy and society. The long list of successful zebra companies includes the e-commerce website Etsy founded in 2005, a specialized platform to sell and buy hand-made products, and Basecamp, which offers comprehensive services helping start-ups find their way around in Silicon Valley, to name just two examples.

8. Gorillas (up to 300 Kilograms)

Business animal gorilla

Gorillas are awe-inspiring mammals – not only in the wild but also in a business context. This term denotes companies dominating an industry, however without having a complete monopoly. Due to their dominant role on the market, they can take great risks. Nobody would dare attack them.

9. The Ostrich (up to 150 Kilograms) Effect

Business animal ostrich

The ostrich effect (for the opposite see the meerkat effect below) describes the inclination of some investors to turn a blind eye to unfavorable financial news and instead, as is wrongly associated with ostriches, stick their heads in the sand. In the business world, managers who are ostriches get busy sugarcoating, ignoring, or, in the worst case, hiding (serious) problems as soon as they occur. Behavior that ranks high in the best-of of management mistakes.

10. Black Swans (up to 15 Kilograms)

Business animal black swan

About 15 years ago, the stock market expert and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb explained the phenomenon of black swans in a book of the same title. Yet the black swan as a symbol for an unexpected event is more than 2,000 years old – when such an animal was still considered pure fiction. Black swans do exist, both in nature and in economics and in world history. Today, unpredictable outlier incidents with extreme impacts are called black swan events. Nassim Taleb holds that it is virtually impossible to forecast such incidents. If the predictions of a self-proclaimed stock market know-it-all ever come true, it’s pure coincidence.

11. Vultures (up to 12 Kilograms)

Business animal vulture

Vultures, just like the much smaller grasshoppers (see below), symbolize a certain type of investors. They are, for example, hedge funds that acquire struggling companies for the sole purpose of selling them shortly after to make a quick profit without caring the least bit about these companies’ long-term development.

12. Fat Cats (up to 7 Kilograms)

Business animal fat cat

Fat cats is an insider term in the financial world used for obscenely rich and greedy people. Already wealthy to start with, they put others to work to get even richer. Also top managers and executives who earn as much in a matter of only a few days as the average employee makes in a whole year are referred to as fat cats. The Fat Cat Day, calculated for countries around the world, is the day on which a typical chief executive has earned the average annual salary of his or her employees. In Austria, Fat Cat Day is January 9; in Germany, it’s January 5. When it comes to yawning pay gaps, the US, however, tops all other countries: American chief executives don’t even have to spend two days at work to earn what their average employee gets in a year.

13. Lame Ducks (up to 5 Kilograms)

Business animal lame duck

Lame duck was originally a stock-market term referencing an investor who is no longer able to cover trading losses. In today’s business speak, lame ducks are companies characterized by a lack of innovative ideas. In politics, lame ducks are outgoing politicians with little power to exercise. An example is the US president, who remains in office until mid-January even though a new president has already been elected in November of the previous year.

14. The Meerkat (up to 0.8 Kilograms) Effect

Business animal meerkat

Meerkats are proactive investors who diligently check their finance portfolios for signs of positive or negative developments. As opposed to ostriches, these investors don’t bury their heads in the sand but act like hypervigilant meerkats that constantly keep their eyes peeled for dangers – particularly when they sense trouble on the stock markets or when a market crash seems to be looming on the horizon.

15. Grasshoppers (up to 4 Grams)

Business animal grasshopper

A real pest. See “Vultures.”

16. Queen Bees (up to 3 Grams)

Business animal queen bee

Queen bee is a term used for female leaders in a field mostly dominated by men. Queen bees (deliberately) do not support their employees’ development, particularly if those are female. Recent research backs up the hypothesis that women in power act like a queen bee in a beehive: there can only be one. This also aligns with the observation that such female leaders seem to mostly pick on work colleagues of their own sex. The queen bee effect has been portrayed in the Hollywood classic “The Devil Wears Prada:” narcissist editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (starring Meryl Streep) leaves no air to breathe and develop for all other team members, particularly suffocating the film’s second protagonist, her assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway).

17. Killer Bees (up to 2.5 Grams)

Business animal killer bees

Killer bees are external companies or individuals such as investment bankers, auditors, lawyers, and tax advisors which or who are hired by an enterprise to help fend off the threat of a hostile takeover. Their job is to identify and also take a variety of anti-takeover measures in order to render the target business unattractive or make it more expensive to purchase (also see “sharks” and “shark repellents”).

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