Three or four times in my life I’ve been given divisions or companies to run that have not been performing. Although it seems like an opportunity like that would be a poisoned chalice, it was actually a no-lose situation. If things went badly then I was drafted in too late. If things went well then I would be credited with the improvement. When expectations are so low it is not that hard to exceed them. Which is not at all the same thing as saying that improvement or success are easy.
When overnight I found myself as CEO of Compass Design Automation, one of my staff gave me the movie Twelve o’clock high in which Gregory Peck takes over a bomber squadron during the second world war and turns it around. The previous commander had become too close to his men to be effective as a commander. It won some Oscars and still worth watching today.
It is a lot easier to make the changes to an organization as a newly-drafted boss than it is to makes those changes if you were the person responsible for the early decisions. Everyone is human and we don’t like admitting that we made a mistake. We get emotionally attached to our decisions, especially to parts of the business that we rose up through or created. Nobody wants to kill their own baby. If you’ve ever fired someone that you hired or promoted, you probably discovered everyone around you thought, “what took you so long?” Reversing decisions that you made yourself tends to be like that.
As a newly drafted boss, morale will usually improve automatically just as a result of the change. Everyone knows lots of things that need to be changed and that were unlikely to be changed under the previous regime. It is a bit like the old joke about a consultant telling a manager something he already knows so that he can go ahead and do it. Just making some of those obvious changes fast creates a “things are going to be different” mentality.
The best example I know of the difficulty of reversing deeply ingrained decisions (without changing the leader) is in Andy Grove’s book Only the paranoid survive. If you are less than a certain age you probably are unaware that Intel was a memory company, initially very successfully and then struggling against Japanese competition. Intel meant memories then in the same way as it means microprocessors today. Here’s the scene. Andy Grove and Gordon Moore are in his office in 1985 discussing an upcoming board meeting. The business is going very badly:
I turned to Gordon and asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him numb then said “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”
It was an extraordinarily brave decision, and laid the ground for what Intel has become today. Usually that type of wrenching change does require a new CEO who has no emotional attachment to the earlier decisions.
At the end of Twelve o’clock high the Gregory Peck character is removed from command. He identifies too closely with his men to be effective as a commander. Time for a new commander.