How appropriate as we near the Thanksiving holiday that our favorite turkey, Jack Welch, gives us some pointers on leadership. In his regular Business Week column in each of the past two issues, he looks at how leadership affected the recent U.S. presidential campaign and how the president-elect should build his teams. He hits on some points, misses on others.
First, with regards to the campaign itself, he comes up with three "lessons":
Start with the granddad of leadership principles: a clear, consistent
vision. If you want to galvanize followers, you simply cannot recast
your message. Nor can you confuse or scare people. McCain's health-care
policy, for example, had real merit. But his presentation of it was
always confoundingly complex.
Meanwhile, Obama's message was simple and aspirational. He talked
about the failings of George W. Bush. He talked about change and hope
and health care for all. Over and over, he painted a picture of the
future that excited people. He also set a perfect example for business
leaders: Stick to a limited number of points, repeat them relentlessly,
and turn people on.
Good one. This is similar to the "clarity of purpose" concept that many new lean leadership models are using. Issues may be complex, but they can be boiled down to a simple set of salient points to energize the troops.
their seminal book by the same name, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan made
the case that execution isn't the only thing a leader needs to get
right, but without it little else matters. This election proves their
point. In nearly two years of steady blocking and tackling, Obama's
team made few mistakes. From the outset, his advisers were best in
class, and his players were always prepared, agile, and where they
needed to be. McCain's team, hobbled by a less cohesive set of advisers
and less money, couldn't compete.
Of course you need to have a different kind of clarity of purpose in order to know what to execute, and Obama's team did this well also. But here's a question: "how?" Saying you'll execute better is easy, actually doing it is the hard part. What methods, metrics, etc did they use?
Another, perhaps bigger, execution lesson can be taken from Obama's
outmaneuvering of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. She
thought she could win the old-fashioned way, by taking the big states
of New York, Ohio, California, and so on. He figured out an unexpected
way to gain an edge—in the usually overlooked caucuses.
The business analog couldn't be more apt. So often, companies think
they've nailed execution by doing the same old "milk run" better and
better. But winning execution means doing the milk run perfectly—and
finding new customers and opening new markets along the way. You can't
just beat your rivals by the old rules; to grow, you have to invent a
new game and beat them at that, too.
I agree with winning by finding a new way. That's why I'm not concerned about behemoths like Wal-Mart… someone will find a better model, and if they don't adapt they'll go the way of Montgomery Ward. But is that really "execution?" Welch seems to confuse execution with innovation and creativity.
Finally, this election reinforces the value of friends in high places.
From the start, Obama had support from the media, which chose to
downplay controversies involving him. Meanwhile, after the primaries,
McCain began to take a beating. In the end, no one could dispute that
Obama's relationship with the media made a difference.
As a business leader, you can't succeed without the endorsement of
your board. Every time you try to usher in change, some people will
resist. That's why you need to start any leadership initiative with your
"high-level friends" firmly by your side, convinced of the merits of
your character and policies. But that's not enough. If you want to keep
your board as an ally, don't surprise them.
Sorry, Jack, I don't buy that one. Sure it is beneficial to have a board, or boss, that supports you. Difficult transformations can be much easier in such an environment. But is "easy" a key lesson of leadership? Nope. In fact, I would say a key leadership attribute is being able to drive transformation without top level support. That takes true talent, and guts. Remember what Fujio Cho said, "lead as if you have no power."
Now on to Jack's advice to Obama, and CEO's, when building teams. He points out three "mis-steps", and don't worry, this will be quick.
Automatically reward loyalists. No matter how long
you've worked for the top job, once you get it, the impulse is to
"endorse" your own early endorsers. What a shortcut to mediocrity, if not disaster.
Duh! No kidding? Did you learn that in biz school?
Another stroke of "brilliance." I'm glad I have Jack around to inform me of this.
I'll give our friend Jack a bit more leeway on this one, as I see even great leaders sometimes make this mistake.
That's probably enough Welch for a few months. We'll check back next turkey season to see if he's said anything new and enlightening.