Swinging the Pendulum of Change

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I am listening to Lou Gerstner’s book – “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” and am struck by the similarity between his account of his leadership and IBM, and that of every other CEO-turns-around-company book I have ever read.

This is not to say that the recording is boring, which it is not. It’s just that there is a common plot behind each of his stories.

In the same way that all operas have 3 parts (I think) and all cricket matches revolve around batting and bowling, I have come to believe all successful turnaround CEOs basically have the same story to tell.

In essence, all companies that are unsuccessful fail because a gap develops between them and their customers. Often, the gap is created when what they have always done successfully stops working.

At a very basic level, the company could just “stop doing it.” With simple changes, this is easy enough to do.

However, for complex changes involving hundreds or thousands of people who are entrenched in decade-long practices, the insight that change needs to happen is only the first step. What is much harder to bring about is the large-scale change in thinking that each individual must undergo – a change that cannot be forced into happen with carrots and sticks.

Instead, it must be articulated repeatedly until people are able to convince themselves.

To perform this kind of miracle, CEOs need to be able to identify the frameworks that underly the weak positions that companies fall into.

Imagine that the culture of a company as a huge collection of pendulums. Each swings very slowly from one extreme position to another. Each pathway is distinct from the other. Only a subset can be seen clearly at any given time.

What do the pendulums represent?

Each pendulum describes a particular dimension of awareness.

For example, some companies are market-driven while others are driven by innovation. Neither position is absolutely better, but it IS possible for a company to get stuck in one extreme or the other without knowing it.
Some of the other extremes include :

  • ethnically monolithic vs. diverse
  • revenue vs. expense driven
  • centralized vs. decentralized
  • diversification of products vs. consolidation
  • faster processes vs. quality processes
  • incentive pay vs. base pay
  • individual vs. group measurements
  • reengineering vs. process improvement
  • job security vs. talent turnover
  • focus on strengths vs. focus on weaknesses
  • strategy vs. tactics
  • vision vs. execution

In his book, Gerstner mentions that the quote most attributed to him is the one in which he said “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.”

Basically, he was saying that the company had gone too far in the direction of visioning, and that, for the time being, it needed to swing the pendulum back to the more practical matters of doing business on a day to day basis.

It is the job of every CEO (and every manager) to swing pendulums.

However, based on experience and training, no 2 managers are the same – they “see” different pendulums. There is, after all, some truth to the notion that if you give a man a hammer, he is likely to see every problem as a collection of nails.

A manager will always attempt to solve a business problem by looking at the pendulums that he can see most clearly. Indeed, he must.

It is also the job of CEOs to point out, and distinguish new pendulums for the executives and employees in a company, so that they can see what he/she sees. Without this ability, a CEO is stuck trying to change a company on their own, and are unlikely to be successful.

Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive

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Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive?

Well, maybe that would be unwise.

It is probably a better idea to get rid of the executive who somehow thinks or acts like he is perfect, because of the damage he does to those around him.

So goes the thinking I happened upon in two separate Harvard Business Review articles (I am wading through a pile of my unread back issues.)

One article is entitled “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” and was written in February 2007 and was co-authored by Peter Senge. The other is called Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer and was written back in November of 2003.

The basic idea I took away is that the executive’s job is too complex to pretend that any one person can figure it all out. Also, the more an executive defends the idea that they have figured it all out, the more difficult they make it for the people around them to be authentic, and therefore effective.

As the author the second article, David Gray, puts it, “… few of us would dare to cultivate a healthy ignorance, or nescience, within our own fields of endeavor, where we often take pride in what we purport to know.”

Here in the Caribbean region, we have been steeped in the school of all-knowing leadership, from Backra (the all-powerful slave-owner) to modern day CEO’s, parents, principals, priests, dons and politicians. Those in power like it that way. So do those who are not.

That is, until the person in power fails spectacularly (like the majority of our politicians) and it starts to become painfully obvious that the messiah’s manifesto and message aren’t enough to make a drop of difference.

This very old, colonial, British style is long outdated in Britain, but it lives on in the colonies, and especially those in management in our institutions. It is stale, stiff and dull, but it still gives some vague psychological comfort… kind of what it’s like to hang out with your grandfather.

The only thing is that at some point you must grow up, because your grandfather probably did not move with the times (mine had trouble believing that man had actually landed on the moon.)

Managers and executives must reach for a style that is authentic. With respect to publicly expressing feelings and emotions, this is a tall order for most of our region’s executives who probably aren’t too used to “sharing” in private, let alone before strangers.

However, the pace at which human information is growing might allow most executives to be authentic about their growing inability to know everything.

That would be a start.