In 2005 I was COO of a company that had already executed a year over year double of revenue with the successful launch of a new product. In spite of that success our executives had enough humility to keep learning. We all attended a 2005 leadership conference in Los Angeles that had a lot of big names. Peter Drucker (management guru), Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good to Great), Jack Welch (Straight from the Gut, Winning), and Michael Porter (Competitive Strategy) were headliners. Rudy Giuliani (9/11 NYC mayor), Craig Venter (human genome), Steve Young (football – throw without seeing the receiver), and Larry Bossidy (Execution) were afternoon speakers. I got a lot out of that conference and to this day I keep coming back to its lessons and material. I plan to refer to those lessons in future blog posts. I also plan to use my just released Lifeboat Moon serial as a fiction test bed to explore these concepts. (Feedback is desired and welcome!)
The Los Angeles leadership conference validated something I believe with almost religious fervor: businesses exist to solve humanity’s problems. Period. They do that by creating wealth. In short, the pie gets bigger. A good example of wealth creation is the semiconductor industry. You start with a handful of sand and turn that into an i7 core microprocessor with 5.5 billion transistors and feature size of 14 nanometers. Semiconductors drive the information industry and power progress. That’s creating wealth. (As an aside, I remember running wafers where microprocessors went from 300,000 to over a million transistors at 1 micron – 1000 nanometers – feature size.) The results of semiconductor wealth creation are devices that allow us to magnify the power of the human brain and connect in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Businesses exist to solve humanity’s problems and the single measure on how well they do that – how much value they truly create – is profit.
By those measures, Jack Welch is often considered the Michael Jordan of business for what he did as CEO at GE. He was also called ‘neutron Jack’ from his early days as CEO. He believed that if you weren’t number one or number two in a business segment and making good profit, you shut it down. The story goes that he would fly in to a location that housed a business segment and if the products weren’t market share leaders, he’d fire everyone. All the people would be gone but the buildings would be left standing – like a neutron bomb hit. It’s easy to see why business gets a bad name.
There is a crucial point to what Jack was doing. Businesses exist to be great. They don’t exist to survive or to provide employment, they exist to be great. Businesses that don’t aspire to and achieve greatness don’t deserve to hang around. And, as Jim Collins often reminds us, being great means being the best at something; not being number three or number four, being the best. Being the best also means you create value which drives profits. If you’re working at company that decides to be anything other than the best, you’re better off somewhere else.
This is supposed to be about inspiration, why all the lead up? Because what we do at our jobs – and most of us work at businesses – defines a large part of our life meaning. It’s wise to pay attention to this. We spend most of our lives at activities that bring home a paycheck.
Time is short, and whatever we decide to do, we bet our life on it. No one gets out of the human condition alive. Perhaps we don’t think about that enough. Life partners, kids, friends, achievement, and leisure are key self-defining decisions. But if you look at it, two-thirds of our irreplaceable alert lifespan is spent at work – making a living. It’s wise to be sure what we do at work is something that counts. We are often tempted to settle for less while thinking about what we really want to do.
While we’re thinking about what to do, time slips by and time is our most priceless resource. Human lifespan is brief and no one gets out alive. We have precious little time to create our life’s meaning. That brevity is both a curse and a prod. The prod is the base for inspiration. We have to get off our butts and do something because time is short! Let’s create or join an organization that decides to be the best at grappling with one of humanity’s big problems.
We create or join this organization then what? Philosophers, leaders, and thinkers debated for five millennia of human history what it takes to live the good life. If you took all that history and thinking and boiled it down to a single sentence that sentence would be: full use of one’s abilities along the lines of excellence in a worthy endeavor. In addition to life partners, kids, friends, achievement, and leisure we do two things. One, we do something that counts – the worthy endeavor. Two, once we pick the thing we bet our life on, we make full use of our abilities along the lines of excellence. Everyone in every job in every country can take inspiration from this truth. I’ve used the ‘full use of one’s abilities along the lines of excellence in a worthy endeavor’ prod to inspire groups from the US Army to companies I’ve worked for and it never fails.
Back to Jack Welch. I was surprised that Jack Welch, the Michael Jordan of CEOs, was short and bald. I mean really short and cue-ball bald. But this guy was undeniably one of the greatest CEOs the world has ever produced. During his tenure at GE, from 1981 to 2001, the company’s value rose 4,000%. That’s creating wealth. But he stood on stage and looked like anything but a CEO. And he told us, “If you want to lead me, make me feel seven feet tall with hair!” That’s what he said. He didn’t talk about the myriad quantitative MBA topics. In the shorthand of you lead people and manage things, he started with leading people. In short, he started with inspiration.
The guy early in his tenure known as ‘neutron Jack’, when given a chance to address hundreds of executives, said ‘make me feel seven feet tall with hair.’ I can tell you what ‘make me feel seven feet tall with hair’ meant to me in my varied career. I’ve always been attracted to an overarching mission that inspired. In the US Army, we went to the frontiers of freedom, won the Cold War, and liberated over two million people of Kuwait. In the military, there’s no question that you bet your life on what you do. My first CEO in corporate America, the great Jim Morgan of Applied Materials, got everyone together and said, we are enabling the Information Age; it is different and better because of what we do. I worked as COO at Intevac that led the data storage technology shift and we enabled the preservation and transmission of human history and culture. Likewise, things were different and better because of what we did. In summary, we were doing something vital and that’s how we led, that’s how we inspired.
More recent, I had just moved to Washington State and stood in front of an Ops group that was fatigued. I had a whopping nine months in the company and we’d been through excruciatingly micromanaged regulatory challenges. We had customer orders to produce and a scant three weeks before the end of the quarter. The potential was there, if we could step up. So I called an all-hands and before going into the numeric challenges, I pulled out the good life card. To paraphrase: ‘We’re all doing something that counts,” I told them. “We are engaged in a worthy endeavor. We have an opportunity to shine in our reach for the good life. What does that mean? It means full use of one’s abilities along the lines of excellence!” And then I talked about what excellence in each area looked like with specific goals. The numbers mean a lot more when people see the higher purpose.
The call to inspiration worked. I had a line manager of twenty-five years’ experience come up to me afterwards and say point blank, “I liked my old boss but you inspire me. Let’s do this.” I was so confident in the results of that all-hands, I called the CFO and told him ‘we got this’. And we did. We hit a revenue record in three weeks that yielded the highest quality to date. That three weeks’ surge was so high we recorded a record quarter and a record year of revenue. It is a record that still stands.
There are a lot of blocking and tackling mechanics to businesses and organizations. For a business to add value there’s strategy, execution, and project management required from the leaders. There’s a need for boldness which has its own genius. I plan to write about those in future blogs. But before all of the mechanics, I felt it important to remember that businesses are made up of people and it’s critical that you ignite their passion and inspire them; make them feel seven feet tall with hair.
Whatever we choose to do, we bet our lives on it. How can we do anything but apply full use of our abilities along the lines of excellence in a worthy endeavor? That’s a call for inspiration!