This is my first official blog for Crossroads. My intention is to start a flow of conversations about a number of perplexing issues that seem to haunt those of us who have discovered that decision making in the early 21st Century requires more than the tools we acquired in our youth. Even if that youth is not yet spent. Or, as in my case, long gone.
The idea of a blog called Crossroads, initially inhabited by four former graduates of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, seemed like a really intriguing place to stir the pot of ideas that had bubbled up during our informal discussions over the past six months.
So here goes.
Crossroads are commonplace. But in the past, the really challenging, life-changing crossroads usually came at a languid pace for most of us.
But not anymore.
“There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system [change;] for the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.” That is so true. It is also true that nothing much has changed since Machiavelli wrote that in The Prince in 1513. But, change is surely in our face today. The question is how we, as leaders, turn it to good—for ourselves and others.
The temptation or the insistence to stay with the past, the proven system, “what works,” is persistent. And that makes sense in many situations. But we can’t make it law. Instead of protecting the past, standing arms out and backs to yesterday, we have to stand back and consider the larger picture and consider options for progressive actions to capitalize on the change, to adjust, even if slowly, to the new momentum.
Of course the new catalyst is digitalization of almost everything, and the role of technology and especially the Internet. We cannot be victims of all this, but use it as tools to our future success. That requires aggressive humility. In a new mode of clarity, we have to watch, listen, and move forward, even if there are rocks in the new road.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The End of Management,” written by Alan Murray, author of “The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management” caught my attention. It describes the rise and fall of corporate bureaucracy and advocates “the need and opportunity to devise a new form of economic organization, a new science of management, that can deal with the breakneck realities of 21st century change.” The article states that the new model will have to be more like the marketplace and less like corporations of the past. Traditionally, we have thought of the market place as the commercial world of buying and selling, originally at a central location, but with the introduction of the Internet, the buying and selling now takes place globally. Increasingly ideas and opinions are exchanged globally as well. By now anyone can invent, innovate, market and distribute goods and services everywhere in the world. The new economic organization will need to be flexible and agile. It will need to anticipate change rather than make decisions based on historic numbers. It will need to reallocate resources almost instantaneously. Rather than corporate finance departments, we need venture capitalist mentalities, rather than marketing departments, we need marketing entrepreneurs that have their finger on the pulse, rather than operations departments we need experts in supply chain management that are aware of the latest and greatest technology to be efficient. Rather than sales departments we need needs researchers and trend observers and follow up experts. In the end we need everyone to have the qualities of an entrepreneur with the tools and resources to make decisions quickly and accurately. And above all we need leaders who understand that everyone needs to be a leader and has to take responsibility.
Imagine you sit down with your first cup of coffee in the morning. You reach for the daily newspaper that you still haven’t canceled, because you have been too busy to cancel the subscription.
“World Attacked by Aliens” it says in bold letters across the front page, which makes you almost spit out your coffee. While you were silently asleep, the world around you has changed, significantly. A million questions are running through your mind. What aliens? Where did they attack? Are your loved ones, spread around the globe, safe? The list continues… While you were in sheer bliss, the world around you seemingly collapsed. You didn’t ask for this change and you didn’t initiate it. It just happened. While you are trying to understand the impact of this change on you, leaders in several countries are scrambling. The situation begs for a leader, someone who will pick up the baton and run with it, someone who will speak for all, even if not all are in agreement, someone who will speak and act for the good of all, someone who can rally the troops, to proceed in a united approach. This begs the question: Do we have such a leader? Or maybe a council? An entity that has the well-being of all in mind? An entity that can act logically but is able to evaluate emotional risks? An entity respected by all and yet with the vision to succeed for the benefit of all. The UN maybe? Or how about THE ELDERS? All the military leaders? All CEO’s?
You might think this is a far-fetched scenario, but it isn’t. It’s happening every day in millions of locations around the world: Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, flooding in Pakistan, Volcano Eruptions in Europe, Financial Instability in Global Markets. Aliens attack us every day!
It takes trust to succeed. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable and accept no one person has the answer, the one solution. In a sense global warming is an attack on the world, as we know it, regardless if you think it’s happening or not. So when will we step up as leaders? And when will we let our leaders lead rather than question every move they make?
Maybe it’s not about management at all, but about leadership. There is a difference, I find. We are all leaders. We may not acknowledge this or even want to, but regardless of our station in life, there’s always someone else looking to us for leadership, if even in a small way perhaps. And that takes thought and commitment. It’s true in the family, in school, and certainly in the workplace.
Steven B. Sample, the past-president of University of Southern California, wrote in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2003) that while managers are expected to make judgments quickly, for leaders, “judgments as to the truth or falsity of information or the merits of new ideas should be arrived at as slowly and subtly as possible—and in many cases not at all.” It was that “not at all” comment that hit me. In facing a decision, business managers learn to gather the facts, assess the options, decide on the best solution, and act.
Conventional wisdom tells us that surely is the right process to manage intelligently. But still, standing back and listening, often brings exciting success. Humble hesitation is not inaction. Intuition is not unscientific. As leaders at the point of decision, how often have we “trusted our feelings” and found ourselves right? A combination of careful decision making and positive fresh thinking has often opened new and profitable paths to victory.
A few months ago, serendipitous events have brought us together. Four Thunderbirds, each with a unique perspective, started a conversation, which has been rich and deep in many ways. We started sharing stories and photographs, thoughts and opinions. And each one contributed with a unique voice. There is John Carter, who refers to himself as the troublemaker. He has spent a lifetime in the US advertising business and is incredible with words and stories. Then there is Fred Andresen, who has spent his career in Russian telecom and brings a unique perspective through his connections, insight and writing skills, since he is a published author of two novels. And then there is Bob Stimson, a Vietnam Veteran, who adopted Vietnamese children. He spent his working life in China and brings a unique perspective from the manufacturing side of business. Last but not least, I am the connector who brought everyone together. My background is in bridging cultures and building connections between European and US business and people, since I spent much of my working life in Europe and the US.
We have found our conversations so rich that we want to share them with you. And we want to encourage you to engage in the conversation. This blog is meant to give us the platform to have this conversation meaningfully and openly. We live in unusual times. Unusual minds leading to unusual conversations is what the world needs right now. Let the conversation begin!