Something That Isnt Worth Doing . . .

Dec. 21, 2004
. . . isnt worth doing well.

An associate of mine told me this story. He was in London on a foggy night and went to a club where he had a nonresident membership. Hoping to strike up a conversation with a distinguished-looking Englishman sitting nearby, he asked, "May I buy you a drink?" "No," said the Britisher coolly. "Dont drink. Tried it once, and I didnt like it." After my friend ordered a drink, he tried to make conversation again. "Would you like a cigar?" "No. Dont smoke. Tried tobacco once, and I didnt like it." My friend thought for a minute and then asked, "Would you like to join me in a game of gin rummy?" "No. Dont like card games. Tried it once, and I didnt like it. However, my son will be dropping in after a bit. Perhaps he will join you." My friend settled back in his chair and said, "Your only son, I presume?" Now I didnt find that story as amusing as my associate apparently did. I tried drinking once, and I didnt like it. So I dont drink. I also tried smoking once, and I didnt like it. So I dont smoke. I tried gin rummy, too. After losing a sizable amount of money to an expert player, I didnt like it. So I dont play gin rummy. But I must confess that I do have more than one son. Robert Frost wrote a poem that became a defining metaphor for my business career. Its title is "The Road Not Taken." You may recall its closing lines: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." My point: The things you dont do in business can often influence your success more than the things you do. Because I dont drink, smoke, do drugs, or eat at fast-food restaurants, Ive become pretty good at not doing things that lots of other people do. In addition to learning not to do what I shouldnt do, I also learned not to do things I couldnt do. And that may have been the most valuable lesson of all. Things I learned: Never buy hair-restoring products from a bald barber. Never hire people who are educated beyond their intelligence. Never confuse good management with a great idea that makes management look good. Never give an alibi for a lousy performance; its as useless as trying to remain dignified during a proctologic examination. And never play poker with a guy whose first name is a city, a state, or a gem. Two of the most valuable lessons Ive learned are (a) never tell your board your personal problems -- half of them arent interested and the other half are glad to see you get whats coming to you -- and (b) something that isnt worth doing isnt worth doing well. All executives face opportunities to decide what is a good business idea and what is not. Chief executives have the authority to make "go vs no-go" decisions. And therein lies a terrible danger from which companies must protect themselves and their chief executives. Companies must establish systems for testing ideas -- particularly those of the chief executive. Why? Because too few executives have the courage to challenge their chief executives ideas. The truth of business life is that CEOs are less likely to come up with "the best idea" than some lower-level individual with specialized experience, or one who is closer to the problem or the customer. Great ideas, no matter who gets them, are worth considerable risk. But bad ideas are bad ideas. They are worthless. Although sticking with a bad idea may show that you have perseverance and fortitude, more often than not it will show that you lack good business judgment. Staying power rarely overcomes a lack of brain power, no matter how many Horatio Alger stories you hear. Unreachable goals are unreachable. Unworkable ideas are unworkable. And impossible dreams are impossible. To those of you who like to manage by gut, let me remind you that guts dont think. Guts dont act; they react. Guts dont project; they reject. Guts dont reason; they only gurgle, bloat, and belch. Guts are the perfect example of the acronym GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Im a student of the Blaise Pascal/Pierre de Fermat school of risk management. They were the mathematical geniuses who in 1654 laid the foundation for the probability theory. They for the first time reduced the vagaries of games of chance to measurable percentages of certainty. They understood how to play the odds. Probability, like its partner statistics, is now an indispensable tool of business management, particularly for the enterprising chief executive looking to make a big hit. Like the song says: "Youve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em." Sal F. Marino is a chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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