I was reading one of those treatises on the "executive of the future" or some such the other night, noting which qualities, skills, talents, and character traits this particular author believed most crucial to success in the 21st century. High on this pundits career to-do list -- just as it is on the lists of many prognosticators -- is developing technical skills. Gone are the days, harrumph these would-be Nostradamuses, when a manager could manage without an intimate knowledge of the technologies that drive his firm and industry.
Well, maybe. Im not one to argue that technical proficiency doesnt help a senior executive. Two of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time -- Intels Andy Grove and Microsofts Bill Gates -- built entire industries based on their early and comprehensive understanding not just of their respective technologies, but of their potential to reinvent society. And only a fool would ignore the benefits that technologies such as e-mail have brought to management. Yet there are so many more executives whose success has not resulted from technological savvy -- IBMs Lou Gerstner and General Electrics Jack Welch come to mind -- that its clear theres something still more important than technical skills.
I was still thinking about all this when I ran across the following quote from the late Thomas J. Watson Jr., as reported in The Book of Business Wisdom: Classic Writings by the Legends of Commerce and Industry by Peter Krass (1997, John Wiley & Sons Inc.). For those with short memories, Watson chaired IBM during the era in which the company became the dominant computer company in the world. Yet despite running the most technologically advanced corporation of his time, Watson maintained a prosaic view of his own job:
My most important contribution to IBM was my ability to pick strong and intelligent men and then hold the team together by persuasion, by apologies, by financial incentives, by speeches, by chatting with their wives, by thoughtfulness when they were sick or involved in accidents, and by using every tool at my command to make that team think that I was a decent guy. I knew I couldnt match all of them intellectually, but I thought that if I used fully every capability that I had, I could stay even with them.
What Watson knew -- and what most "experts" on the future of management still dont -- is that while execs with technical skills are vital to the success of any firm, even more important are the leaders who keep the technicians productive, happy, and focused on market opportunities. That kind of leadership requires schmoozing, politicking, flattery, and, yes, even caring -- none of which fits neatly into the kinds of lists that make tidy little "exec of the future" articles or books. Maybe 21st-century management will look more familiar than the experts think.
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