You're Never Too Old To Learn . . .

Dec. 21, 2004
. . . or to admit it.

If I could design the ideal CEO, Id model him or her after a young man it was my good fortune to meet back in 1976. This young dynamo could run GE or GM without raising his blood pressure a half point. His rsum says he graduated from Andover Academy, Harvard University, and Harvard Business School. But hed be just as able if he had graduated from PU in Stinko, Idaho. He actually earned his business degrees at the breakfast table while he was growing up. "My father was and still is my best teacher!" he says. We should all be as lucky in choosing our parents. His father happens to be one of the premiere entrepreneurial and marketing gurus of the 1950s. The father built a single product into a major corporation. He made it the market leader in its field and then sold it to a mega-giant. When Dad discovered that (for him) being bigger wasnt better, he left Megabucks Corp. and, together with his brother, started from scratch once again. Ill refer to his new company as Newco. The son joined Newco in sales and marketing in his early 30s. What he found turned out to be much better than anyone expected. His impact on Newcos new-product development, new-technology utilization, and strategic planning were immediate. He had his fathers genes, all right. By the age of 36 he had earned a well-deserved promotion to chairman/CEO of one of the companys key divisions by literally quadrupling its profitability. In 1984, at the age of 41, he became president of Newco and succeeded his father as CEO five years later. Under his leadership, Newco has had seven consecutive years of remarkable revenue and profit growth. The companys revenues exceed $1 billion today, even after the successful spinoff of a $650 million division just three years ago. I met this fresh-faced whiz kid when he was 33; I was 56. I had four years of military service on my rsum (three of them as a company commander) and 24 years of publishing experience (five of them as a CEO). Eight years later, this Harvard B-School whiz kid became my boss. The "package" was stereotypical: Brooks Brothers herringbones, wing-tipped loafers, button-down shirts, and striped rep ties. I could read the 100 MB capacity in his eyes. His chronological age was only 41, but psychologically he was 65 and mentally he was at least 90. My heartbeat accelerated, my palms perspired, and my stomach acids churned. His Drucker-Toffler-Deming-Herzberg-stuffed head was intimidating, and he stood there as if he were expecting me to punch his keyboard. But I restrained myself. This walking, talking B-School textbook was going to read my proposals, probe into my head, and play with my psyche. I felt sorry for myself. I didnt deserve this. I should be the one playing with his software systems instead of him testing mine. Hitting him was the smartest thing I never did, because, to my astonishment, in the ensuing years I learned more about being an effective, successful, creative CEO than I had in my entire 32-year-to-date experience. Here was a living case history that proved that I was not too old to learn, and he was not too young to teach. And for that, I thank him sincerely. Some of his management maxims:

  • "Dont be afraid of failure. If you succeed with one of three ideas and dont lose too much on the other two, you will be far ahead in the long term."
  • "Hire a few exceptional people instead of a lot of good ones. Hire people who are creative and let them run their businesses with a minimum of interference."
  • "Read. Read. Read. At home. At work. On planes. You can never know too much, but you can often know too little."
  • "Fifty quality work hours are better than 100 good work hours. Learn to do better-quality work in less time than others. And reserve quality family time."
  • "Strategic planning may well be the key to business success. Few businesses do it right -- those that do reap exponential rewards."
  • "When you hire someone, you must assume a major part of the responsibility for his or her success. Encourage. Support. Suggest. But rarely insist. Your top executives should know their businesses better than you do."
  • "Have a good memory. Do not forget the contributions people have made to your success. Have a long-term perspective . . . forward and backward." If youre curious about this mystery CEO, drop me a line, call me, or send me an e-mail message. Ill be glad to share his identity with you. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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