FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Entry #12 (2013)

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

Execution?

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, in his best seller Winning, tells us What Winners are Made Of. He says, winners, good managers, are made of positive energy, the ability to energize others, the ability to make tough decisions, otherwise known as edge, and then he tells an absolutely astonishing story about how he and his HR director Bill Conaty discovered the fourth essential constituent of managerial ability.

Jack and Bill are flying back to headquarters during a search for promotable executives, and looking over “page after page of high-potentials with three solidly colored-in circles”. (Yes, the CEO and HR director of General Electric like coloring books.) The three circles of their promotable, high-potential managers represent positive energy, ability to energize others, and edge, but, I’m not making this up, the HR director turns to the CEO and says, “You know, Jack, we’re missing something. We have all these great people, but some of their results stink.” The next paragraph is a single sentence: “What was missing was execution.”

In this dumbfounding testimonial to inane deliberations by exalted managers there is an argument for the elimination of schools of business administration everywhere. How Jack could work for thirty years in business and become the CEO of any profitable enterprise, much less General Electric, without apprehension of the fact that executives have to deliver tangible results, or something, to verify that they can execute on all the fire in the belly they evince during planning meetings, is almost unbelievable. It is almost unbelievable, but not unbelievable for workers who daily have to endure the dysfunctional processes overseen by their managers, who annually suffer through reviews based on career-stage profiles and assessments of their performance by people with MBAs instead of computer science degrees, and all the other inanities of managers who spend four days of every week in planning meetings but never go into a lab.

How did hard-nosed business people ever go so soft in the head? What happened to the simple objectifying principle that you can’t manage what you can’t measure? Somebody with money that can be wasted indefinitely, without exhausting the spendthrifts’ expense accounts, has vested so much power in managers that they don’t have to listen to feedback from engineers or the sales staff. It seems that some of them do listen and go to the lab, or nothing would get done right. But, like mega-managing Communists, managers have too much power over too many human resources. They can’t manage effectively, or they don’t have any compelling motivation to manage effectively, such as a CEO who knows that execution is what counts.

Historically, the human race is supposed to have learned that power corrupts when it rejected taxation without representation and the divine right of kings. The business world is in a time-warp that is some analogue of feudalism.

***

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  1. Here is some steak to go with all the previous ‘lightweight’ entries: a serious business mind wrote this. We who work in less rarified air – without benefit of the WSJ on our desks each day – put our stories in the form of highly personal narratives: we have issues that arise as we work, and here is how we handled them. This author tells us nothing personal, however, and keeps their role in the business world to themselves. Are they a reporter? A mid-level banker? Who knows. It is an interesting analysis of business practices at the top level, but I wonder if it reveals enough to let the rest of the world in on the crucial, sometimes vulnerable inner dialogue about what we do which this prompt requested.

  2. Not sure where to put this comment, but Michael, I love your analysis/commentary on the essays….

  3. Oh, the progress we could all make if we focused more on execution (and a unified mission) than on turf-guarding. Common sense is as valuable as an MBA oftentimes…..

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