I came across a great quote the other day attributed to Fulton Sheen. he said, "The time one has for anything depends on how much we value it. Thinking determines the use of time; time does not rule over thinking."
The old Arch-Bishop was talking about theological matters, of course, but his principle is pretty much universal. Kevin and I pound on companies to the point that it begins to sound like a broken record. They are struggling to compete, so they lay people off. Then they move to China. Then they buy a monstrous ERP system to keep track of the inventory they have scattered all over the globe oozing at a snail's pace through absurdly long supply chains. Then they file for bankruptcy, get broken up, or otherwise end up in bigger trouble then they were at the start. It is very, very predictable.
I recall once writing rather cynically (imagine that!) about a company that pursued basically this layoff/China/ERP strategy, suggesting that I could have developed the strategy they adopted for $20 and mailed it to them on a post card … blacks belts, layoffs, China, etc… There was nothing to it that was not straight from the same formula every other big company seemed to be following.
While I disagree with his focus – too much product and too little process – I have to give Steve Jobs credit for original thinking. Too many -most, it seems – leaders seem to be either far too busy or far too risk averse to put an original thought into the business. But whether it is perceived lack of time or fear of coming up with the wrong thoughts, the good Bishop was right. Not taking the time to learn and think directly reflects the value many leaders place on such activities. They do not see creative thinking on their part as an important element of their job.
They are masters of other people's thoughts, and see their role as one of executing that plagiarised thinking. Leaders know the thoughts of others that were drilled into them in school, and lessons learned from watching others as they progressed through the ranks. Then when they reach the top, learning and thinking slam to a halt and they run the company with absolute conviction in what they have learned from others. If original thinking is needed, they hire a consultant – but most often a very predictable, reliable consultant like McKinsey who can be counted on to copy and paste the latest consensus elite business school thinking. The notion of setting aside time to learn more for themselves, think deeply and broadly, and devise a creative direction for the business never crosses their minds.
I have come to believe that one of the reasons many privately held companies pursue and embrace strategies and modes of operating that successfully buck the high labor cost, over-regulation, excessive taxes and other constraints that 'force' big companies to layoff, off-shore and outsource is the Hernando Cortes effect. Cortes is the conquistador who arrived at Vera Cruz Mexico in July of 1519 with 11 ships and 700 or so guys with the goal of confiscating the wealth of the million plus member Aztec empire. Upon his arrival he promptly destroyed his ships. By that act, he took the easy solution off the table. Knowing he was facing a tall order – 700 men versus a million – he wanted to force himself and his men to devise creative solutions to the problems they were certain to face. The obvious solution to their challenges – retreat – was not permitted to be one of their solutions.
When the privately held company – or even the big ones like Toyota and SC Johnson – have publicly committed to no layoff policies and committed to their communities they are doing largely the same thing. The leaders are forcing themselves and their staffs to devise creative solutions to the problems that will inevitably arise. The easy solutions – the cut and paste layoff, off-shore, outsource solutions – are not among their options, so they have to stretch their brains, be creative, learn about alternative ideas.
I don't know that the leaders of privately held businesses are any smarter than the leaders of the mostly mediocre and very predictable big businesses, but I suspect they spend a lot more time thinking.