Tag Archive | jim collins

Executives ≠ Leaders; Business Operations ≠ Government Operations; Business Executives ≠ Political Leaders

“We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’” — from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great and the Social Sectors

(“Social sectors” can be easily replaced with “government agencies.”)

When I first read that passage, I wanted to dance a jig. Finally, someone well known and highly respected for his ability to bridge academics to practice says something that I, with little public reputation, have been arguing for quite some time.

imgres-2While a great leader – with talent manifested in a track record of sound judgment and excellent decisions outcomes – may be able to transfer her talents from business to social sectors and government, the entities themselves are not quite comparable. Using Mr. Collins’ language, both the input and output of business operations is money. In government operations, money is only an input; the output measurement is largely effectiveness. Furthermore, many functions and objectives within a government may compete with each other, such as environmental concerns versus energy production.  Comparatively speaking, focusing on only making money seems more straightforward.

When a business runs into trouble, it allocates money to finding solutions, fixing things, and/or generating PR campaigns – in real time. A government agency doesn’t get to allocate money easily, or quickly. A typical business executive may choose from a diverse range of options for any issue at hand, and most of the time, the boss doesn’t need to consult with others beyond those few the boss likes. The president of United States has to work with many body collectives; within his inner circle, he may occasionally get pushback, but outside of the West Wing, the opposition has grown fiercer over the decades. Being tough is a requirement for the US presidency, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to shout louder, talk incessantly with made-up stuff, and insult others with impunity.

Many candidates of this year’s presidential campaign have been making racist, misogynistic, inflammatory, and simply false statements. These people would have been fired long ago had they been employed in private companies or public sector entities. Yet, one of them is now the presumptive nominee in one of the major parties in our country, which is regarded as the leader of the free world. For now.

More importantly, on the matter of running government as a business, as one writer, John Harvey, argues well in a 2012 Forbes leadership column, “not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.” The various government agencies have different types of functions and purposes, but their purposes are not to make profits. And even if we debate till our faces are blue, we cannot ever agree on which agency and which function should be privatized. Further, to think that somehow private businesses are more efficient – think about hospitals, phone companies, most airlines, your local cable company, to name only a few – is just not realistic.

In today’s private industry, many large-ish companies run like government: top-down decision-making, little transparency, little attention to consumers’ voices, blatant intrusion into our privacy…etc. Market mechanism doesn’t recognize morality and it isn’t always effective in checking and catching abusers and cheaters, from both within and without. How many colossal private industry meltdowns do we have to go through before this lesson is learned? Should we take that kind of risk in running our government like business?

I am by no means arguing against checking the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but the metrics for measurement are not readily transferrable from private sector to government, certainly not without careful calibration. Running a government and operating a business are fundamentally different. In fact, many government agencies’ budgets are so constraining (with most employees’ pay, especially most senior executives’ pay, at much lower levels than private industries) that from a financial perspective, perhaps some of these agencies are more efficient than private businesses?!imgres-1

Again, it’s not that government cannot learn a thing or two from private industries…or vice versa. Let’s just not mindlessly associate private industry’s practices with virtue and government’s practices with evil. And if we really want some business executives (with true leadership qualities) to lead our government agencies or branches, let’s choose executives who have a history of wisdom instead of self-indulgence, who recognize talent over sycophancy, who show a willingness to work with other wise people, who exhibit breadth of knowledge and passion for truth, and feel deep compassion for all people. Such leaders would have a higher probability of creating effectiveness, financially or otherwise.

Most of today’s politicians deserve the scorn from the general public. They are as responsible for the rampant bureaucratic waste as the executives and managers running the various agencies. However, when it comes to government waste, we the voters have to take some responsibilities. These “wastes” are totally socially constructed reality. It seems that a good portion of people use the term only on the programs with which they disagree. The left thinks the defense budgets are wasteful corporate welfare, and the right thinks the Affordable Care Act is wasteful public welfare. Who’s right?!

Eric Schnurer in The Atlantic points out that most of us have some pet government programs we want to keep while eliminating others. While many have complained about the growing federal budget and “wasteful” programs, by and large, the ones we might consider giving up would amount to a miniscule dent in the budget. And how do we go about agreeing on what’s truly “wasteful” and to be eliminated? “The public — not just here, but everywhere — demands a wide range of government services. On the other hand, the public is unwilling to pay for the government it demands. Yes, that means taxes.

images-4And just about all experts, and non-experts too, agree that indiscriminately cutting budgets across the board is the most inane way to go about reducing our waste. Yet, that’s exactly what Congress has given us, through “sequestration.” In the meantime, we think building a wall across our southern border is a wise way of spending money? (Hint: Rome tried that on its northern border in Britain, China tried that on its northern border in Asia, Russia tried it on its western border in Berlin, France on its eastern border with Germany. Admittedly, nobody seems to have tried it on its southern border, so maybe that will work better.) Strangely, these days, it seems the comedians have a better grasp of the nuances of public policy. For another perspective on building this wall, please take some time to view John Oliver’s delivery on the topic.

In general, I have avoided talking about politics in this space. However, the pervasive insistence that business operators know better how to run our government in the face of evidence to the contrary, has compelled me to cross the line. I am sure I have overlooked many aspects, so I invite you to help me learn more in this area.

Till next time,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com



Wishful Thinking; Magical Thinking; Idealism; Reality: We seem to lose our ability to distinguish these categories

I try; I’ve really tried, and I truly want to hold onto appreciative mode of thinking. But these days reality frequently bites me with reminders of why so many people in our society, or for that matter, in the rest of the world, have become cynical.

Last week, Ted Cruz chose Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate in the GOP presidential campaign.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Professor Jeff Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, once described Fiorina succinctly, “[even] people who have presided over catastrophes suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary, Ms Fiorina, who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!” Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that Ms. Fiorina could help other businesses understand how not to fail?!

Oh, what am I thinking? That would require a degree of humility to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Humility in today’s leadership? either in organizations or in politics?!

The aforementioned Professor Pfeffer is one of the prominent scholars in the management field. He’s studied countless organizations and leaders/managers. He and his colleague, Robert Sutton, have written many books that are good reading for both academics and practitioners, of which “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” was the basis for several of my earlier posts (here & here). Pfeffer’s latest book is titled, “Leadership BS.” According to the Financial Times writeup, even some of Pfeffer’s colleagues think that he has become too cynical, focusing too much on the “scorpions, spiders and cockroaches” of D- or F-rated leaders. Hmmmm…first, let’s not call these D/F-rated managers or politicians “leaders.” Second, only the cockroach should be used as the reference; the other species actually serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Pfeffer’s defense is: He relates what the data inform him.

In Professor Pfeffer’s view, we want to imbue inspirational qualities in the images of ideal leaders, qualities such as authenticity, consideration, humility, etc. But the majority of the managers in his studies do not live up to this inspirational image. This doesn’t negate the existence of a few truly inspirational leaders with abundant humility. Pfeffer himself has named a few inspirational leaders in his years of studying leadership. Jim Collins’ books, for example “From Good to Great,” illustrate some of the quiet type of leaders; yet, Mr. Collins has highlighted many charismatic, pseudo-inspirational leaders who focus on their own satisfaction rather than serve the good of the people in their organizations. Nonetheless, I take Pfeffer’s point that genuinely inspirational leaders are few and far between. By building up the “shoulds” in the leadership attributes while neglecting the reality, we (who like to write about or teach these topics) do a disservice for our audience and help create the disenchantment that’s been festering in our society. It is but one source for the loss of our collective trust in our management and leadership.

Another strand of criticism laid against Professor Pfeffer is that by focusing on the narcissistic leaders/managers, he is essentially condoning those who hoard power. Pfeffer argues that there are always those who hunger for power; we cannot ever eliminate that; it’s part of human nature. Nor can we wish it away by only focusing on the few inspirational leaders. We may try to contain the abuse of power, but hierarchy is part of our DNA where power is a tool. What his research has done is to help us understand how people acquire and keep power. Pfeffer uses the examples of President Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to illustrate that even true leaders have to lie and manipulate in order to achieve what they perceive as “higher” purposes.   As for how to use power for better purposes, for the greater good of the public, answers lie in our upbringing, our philosophical leaning, the kind of peer and social circles we have, etc.

Snake or twig?

Snake or twig?

And oh, by the way, just because someone can lie and manipulate masterfully, or even seemingly so, doesn’t make that person a shining example of a “leader.” Especially if at the end of the lying and manipulating, there is little evidence of accomplishment for anyone but him/herself…that’s simply someone drunk on power; it’s called “being Voldemort.”

Ultimately, what we look for in leadership is judgment exhibited in the track record. It isn’t just successes we want, but also the quality of these successes…as well as the nature and circumstances of failures. Making tough decisions is not the relevant metric; if (say) three out of five tough decisions lead to impressive failures then “the ability to make tough decisions” is hardly a bragging point – a tossed coin could have done better. Tanking a Fortune 500 company might be worth, say, five-fold failure.

According to Professor Pfeffer’s research, the data on the quality of leadership do not back up what the business schools teach or what the leadership industry advises. Should we give up? Of course not, but a healthy dose of realistic examination would be valuable. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton have another book calling for such practice, “Evidence-Based Management Principles.

Robert Townsend in his book “Up The Organization,” offers an easier and much less costly method of assessing a good leader. “How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue: since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.(Highlight mine)

A genteel dog in real life.

A genteel dog in real life.

Regardless of the method we choose to assess leaders, the evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the business operators who attempt to enter into politics do not possess a good track record. Yet because they themselves have not suffered terribly in the business world, their narcissism leads them to think they know better. Hence the public cynicism. It seems there are no consequences for executives’ bad behavior and decisions. Ms. Fiorina was fired, but enjoyed a golden parachute of millions in compensation and stock options. Mr. Trump has filed four bankruptcies, but is touted as successful billionaire. As many have pointed out, had Mr. Trump just sat on his inheritance, he’d accrued more asset than what he currently claims to possess. In addition, having 1,300 lawsuits involving Trump and/or his companies since 2000 isn’t exactly a positive reflection on the quality of his business, is it?

Still, many keep arguing for a business operator to run the largest government on this planet. The assumptions for such a wish are fallacious. I will address these assumptions in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Versus, Either-Or: It’s a lazy way of thinking

blue ballsIn management talks, one common framing is “leaders vs. managers,” or, “leadership vs. management.” Many managers like to think that they are leaders when they can’t even manage well. And most self-proclaimed leaders think that managing is beneath them. Clearly, in our minds we assign values to these two roles. Yet, true leaders, with humility, spend valuable time understanding the people around them, their work, and the context; wise managers value the knowledge of how work is done and think holistically. In great leaders, we see their managerial talents, and in great managers, we see their leadership qualities. Pitting one category against the other feeds small-minded egos, and often results in unfortunate decisions and counterproductive policies.

More importantly, leadership qualities and management skills can be manifested in anyone without carrying any titles, depending on the context and situation. One doesn’t have to be a team leader to lead a project. There are many aspects involved in executing a project, and at any given time, someone, anyone, can seize the opportunity to lead with her suggestions or ideas. Or, one can take the lead in networking, scouting resources, or trouble-shooting during any phase of a project. Someone with impeccable administrative talents would be a godsend to me in my team!

In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, his “level-5” leaders exhibit and appreciate for detail, fact, and evidence, spend time to understand how work is carried out, do not seek credit or spotlights, have the courage to make risky decisions instead of hiding behind process and procedures, and give staff room to develop. My point is that true leadership and great management skills overlap quite a bit.

However, in today’s ever-increasingly stressful work environment and our push for specialization, people feel they don’t have enough time to ponder and make distinctions. Putting everything in neat categories, assigning a value to every variable, or codifying every procedure appears to save us time, but we all pay the ultimate price of being boxed in, having little room to maneuver, or feeling neglected for our special talents.

Just look at some basic aspects of our daily life. When you call a business with a question or a problem, be it an airline, wireless company, doctor’s office, etc., the gauntlet you have to go through to get to the “right” channel is maddening. By the time we are motivated to call an outfit, our needs may be so specific and individualistic that we can’t seem to find a fit with their system’s pre-determined categories. I usually just randomly choose an option and then explain my reason for calling; it seems to matter little just who I initially get hold of. Have you noticed that at each gauntlet “station” you have to explain your reasons to each agent all over again?

Not only we are limited by the categories from which to choose, we contribute to the overall constriction by thinking we can choose only one of the two choices. Just two, either-or!

art in nature

When someone thinks that she’s a “leader,” and therefore only needs to focus on making big plans, dreaming big dreams, coming up with big visions, and attending strategic planning retreats, she often makes unrealistic demands on the lower ranks by imposing counterproductive deadlines, authorizing arbitrary budgets, or constraining staff power. Think of a leader you admire; I’ll bet that he knows his industry, his company’s capabilities, and his people’s skills, very well. He doesn’t just espouse lofty ideas. However big the dreams these admirable leaders have, they know how to push their dreams to reality, and they know what people they can rely on to help them realize the dreams. Knowing all the facts can paralyze an average leader or manager, and making a wise decision and driving it to execution isn’t limited to either management or leadership.

To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right.”  by Bob Sutton, co-author (with Jeff Pfeffer) of The Knowing-Doing Gap & Hard Fact, Dangerous Half-Truths, & Total Nonsense.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com



I Like Brevity…Till I Need More.

Pithy comments can be enlightening, useful, and often embed great wisdom.  However, sometimes, their brevity leaves much to ponder over.  Or, maybe that’s the purpose of pithy words; it provokes us to think more.  While I cherish Robert Townsend’s “Up The Organization,” full of piercing observations of organizational nonsense and wise advise to counter it, I often want to parse some sentences for details on the how’s.  It is difficult to address how’s in a pithy manner.  A thoughtful and wise manager (yes, it’s a rarity but such managers exist) may be able to glean guidance from this modest volume, but most mortals need more.  Such is also my reaction to David Ogilvy’s observations on creative leaders’ quality and management principles.

A hummingbird moth

A hummingbird moth

Many considered Ogilvy to be the “The Father of Advertising,” or, the original “Mad Man,” according to Maria Popova, the curator and founder of www.brainpickings.org.  He was in the creative business and was successful at running one of the world’s leading ad agencies in the 50s and 60s.

Mr. Ogilvy offers many excellent points and lessons on writing, creativity, leadership, and management in his “Unpublished David Ogilvy.”

On the quality of creative leaders, he offers the followings:

  1. “High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.”

From http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/11/david-ogilvy-10-qualities-of-creative-leaders/

It is difficult to argue with these seemingly common-sense points.  However, times have changed since these words were uttered, decades ago.  For instance, Mr. Ogilvy explained the hard working principle,  “Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”

If people are allowed to have their “purpose, mastery, and autonomy ” at work, they would want to work hard to reach their personal “high.”  But when an organization – through management – demands, seemingly wily-nily, that you surrender evenings and weekends, it kills your soul and spirit eventually…and possibly your marriage and family.   Working hard is what most of us desire to do, but that has to come from self-motivation rather than external incentives/disincentives.   If Mr. Ogilvy could see how much busywork there is in organizations these days, and how people are stressed because they can’t find enough time to do what they really care to do, he probably would modify his statement on “hard work.”

Twofer...including the blurry one.

Twofer…including the blurry one.

And about “charisma,” I am always a bit wary of charismatic people.  Lee Iacocca was hugely charismatic, so was Jack Welch.  Both of them had shining moments in their “leadership” years, but ultimately, much of what they did was for their own egos.  They are not considered “level-5” leaders, in Jim Collins’ taxonomy, for good reasons.  In fact, many “level-5” leaders are not at all charismatic but definitely methodical; they may even be a little dull.  Does this mean that executives in advertising industry have to be charismatic?  Does the nature of the industry have certain claims on leadership qualities?

Before you think I need to challenge most of Ogilvy’s words, here is one gem I love:  “If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.”  Yet…yet…beware of those self-important “exceptional” persons.  An “asshole,” no matter how brilliant, can be demoralizing for colleagues at the workplace.  So, I found strong resonance with Ogilvy’s point on creative integrity: “Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”

Ultimately, my point is this:  For every wonderful pithy statement, there are many nuances one needs to consider.  However, I accept totally this piece of wisdom from Mr. Ogilvy:  “If you ever find a man who is better than you are – hire him.  If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”  What humility!  If you encounter such a boss or colleague, cherish your luck.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

A Few End-of-the-Year Random Thoughts

enough snow would transform everything

Is it precisely because one does not regard oneself as a leader, or even a potential leader, that one has the real possibility to become a leader?   If true, this is the paradox of true leadership.  I am not going back to discuss leaders or managers, but instead discuss the powers which a manager applies to build and sustain an organization.  Besides, I owe you some positive examples, don’t I?

The funny thing is that pinpointing the specific achievements of really effective leaders, the achievements that make a lasting impression (other than awesome near-term performance e.g. stock values), just isn’t easy.  One of the major reasons is that these leaders (and I will call them leaders, for reasons I will elaborate below) themselves are humble and always credit their employees.  They tend to operate outside the media radar and Wall Street sandbox.  For lack of a better label, they are what Jim Collins calls “level 5 leaders.”  Mr. Collins defines the L-5 leader as someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (p. 20, in “Good to Great:  Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t.”)

a little wet snow goes a long way

The level-5 leaders embody Lao-Tzu’s description, “As for the best leaders, people do not notice their existence…When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” And I add that this type of leader would totally concur with their people’s assertion that they “did it themselves,” without any doubt and reservation.  And that’s why I call these managers/CEOs “leaders.”  They use their powers with discretion and for bigger purposes other than their own satisfaction.

In Mr. Collins’ book, he and his research team pressed these L-5 leaders to specify what they had done that had made their respective organizations perform so well, their usual response was, “it’s luck,” or, “I have great people working here,” or variations of the same themes.  Yes, they might have made some tough decisions that in retrospect made the turning point for their organizations, but by themselves, those decisions were no tougher than other monumental decisions that are recognized and studied.  In fact, sometimes, their decisions were actually ridiculed by the Wall Street pundits.

a level-5 leader?

For example.  Darwin Smith, CEO of the Kimberly-Clark for about 20 years starting in 1971, made the decision of selling off Kimberly-Clark’s core business foundation, its mills.  He reasoned that the core business was doomed to mediocrity.  However, by selling the mills, the company might be forced to focus on consumer paper product business, against the world-class competitor Proctor & Gamble.  This focus forced Kimberly-Clark to aim for greatness (or perish).  Some business analysts deemed the move “stupid,” and Wall Street downgraded its stock.  25 years later, Kimberly-Clark owned Scott Paper, and its six out of eight products were better rated than P&G’s.  In retirement, Mr. Smith reflected that “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”  Is it better to have inspired standards or inspired personality?

just another fence…

Another example was the CEO of Abbot Laboratories, Mr. George Cain.  He saw that nepotism was the root cause of the company’s mediocre-to-low performance, and set out to systematically and methodically replace family members with the best qualified people he could find.  Firing family members couldn’t possibly have been a pleasant task!  Letting go people with seniority would be counter-intuitive.  But Mr. Cain’s ambition was for the company, not for himself.   And when Abbot eventually gained ground and its stock rose substantially, the family members forgave Mr. Cain.

Another facet of these quiet L-5 leaders is that by putting the company first, they are likely to find successors that have similar priorities.  In fact, Mr. Collins and his research team found that charismatic managers/CEOs often subconsciously find successors who are likely to fail, and thereby bolster their own images.

where is the level-5 leader?

A further interesting point about these quiet leaders is that all but one of the 11 that were identified by Mr. Collins’ research team came up through the ranks within the companies.  By contrast, whenever the board of directors attempted to bring from outside some flashy personality that would catch the media’s attention, these organizations had a high probability of failure, and failed spectacularly at times.

The outsider-insider divide for high management positions invites another observation, on the implicit assumption that MBA offers a shortcut up the managerial ladder.  But when a person tries to substitute an MBA for on-the-ground education and experience, s/he eventually will fall short; there is no shortcut for grasping an organization’s history, core business, and culture.

just love the snow

Note that the converse isn’t necessarily true; that is:  Absence of flashy personality doesn’t always make a potentially brilliant leader.  But that said, how can level-5 leadership qualities be taught, and learned?  Given the amorphous nature of leadership, there aren’t likely any 10-step programs or 12-points to remember to move up to that level.  One needs to take time, develop keen observational abilities, possess deep levels of self-reflection – to name just a few – to understand how to use powers for the betterment of the organizations, never for oneself.

Related is the issue of the fit between a person and the position to which one aspires.  Most people just are not a good fit with high management positions.  If we don’t collectively deem such lack of fit as “failure,” I think we’d all be better off, for the people as well as for the organizations.  It is difficult to try to find the balance between accepting one’s limitations and pushing oneself for higher goals.  But one can always aspire to higher standards.

from my computer room’s bay window

And then, there are those egotistic and narcissistic types who by definition will never become level-5 leaders.  Oh, by the way, I heard that “narcissistic personality disorder” just got deleted from the latest edition of DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder).  Do these people feel slighted, as their inherent self-importance is now clinically ignored?  Should the rest of us feel alarmed that egotism and narcissism are no longer disorders?

doesn’t it look like a crocodile’s head?

Anyway, I wish you all happy holidays.  This is the last entry of 2010.  I will resume the blog on 1/9/2011.  May you be safe, at peace, and contented.

Until 2011,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent