Brandt On Leadership -- House On Fire? Skip Strategy

Dec. 21, 2004
Complete this checklist before devising your 'grand plan.'

OK, Mr. Big Shot. You've just been named CEO of Barelysurviving Industries Inc. after Old-What's-His-Name finally got handed his head (and his severance package) on a silver platter. The financials are a mess, the operations are even worse and employee morale is in the toilet. Your customers hate you. Even your spouse wonders if this isn't, well, perhaps less of a "disguised opportunity" than a CEM (career-ending move). What you need, you say to yourself, is a strategy, a grand and clever plan that will lead the company out of this morass and into the promised land of perennial profit. You mention this to a friend -- say, for example, a columnist on leadership -- and he replies, calmly: "STRATEGY! WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF AN IDIOT?" "Uh," you say. "Not usually -- " "YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE, AND YOU'RE WORRIED ABOUT HOW TO ARRANGE THE NEW FURNITURE THAT YOU HAVEN'T BOUGHT AND YOU CAN'T PAY FOR!" Your serene friend continues: "GET A FIRE HOSE! GET A BUCKET! GET OUT YOUR RESUME, YOU CLUELESS WALLY!" Roughly translated, what your friend meant to say is that perhaps this is a time during which you ought to focus on fixing your company's execution problems rather than on building your strategic legacy. Indeed, once your friend calms down -- which he might, after he stops choking on the phrase grand plan -- he might even offer you a checklist of execution keys that failing organizations always lack, including: A commitment to measurement and metrics: Most companies that founder have no idea what went wrong. Thick-headed managers play a part in this comedy of dunces, but the more systemic problem is a failure to evaluate people, products, services and processes with consistent rigor. Only by establishing targets for key metrics -- margin, customer survey ratings, etc. -- can a company make sure that its operations will remain effective and profitable. Reluctance to measure inevitably leads to scattered priorities, scarce resources divided among competing projects and operational paralysis. A commitment to empowerment and decentralization: Show me a failing company, and I can almost guarantee that its downward spiral isn't the result of a lack of talent but an excess of micromanagement. Organizations that can't deliver customer value at high margins are almost always described by employees and customers alike as hierarchical and bureaucratic. In fact, the restrictions these companies place on employee freedom -- mandating three signatures for a return, requiring all budgets to be signed off by VPs -- make them models of customer service prevention, rather than innovative value creators. Reluctance to empower employees always leads to inefficiency, missed connection with customers at all levels and sinking employee morale. A commitment to information-sharing and cross-functional problem solving: Turf and departmental prerogatives are very big in failing firms. CEOs at these companies are often unwilling to discipline the most egregious violators, because the violators have usually managed to corral key processes or customer relationships as part of their empire. If you're one of these CEOs, treat yourself to the biggest favor of your career: Publicly fire the worst SOB of the lot and watch your employees -- and customers -- thank you. The rest of the business will run more smoothly, too, as the underlying messages -- Metrics and Empowerment are In, Turf is Out -- seep into the brains of the other dinosaurs at Barelysurviving, forcing them to evolve or become extinct. In fact, things may improve so much that you'll find you need one thing more: "A STRATEGY, YOU CLUELESS HUMP! WHO IN THE SAM HILL SAID YOU COULD SUCCEED WITHOUT ONE?" John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!