The Corporate Right Stuff
by: Terrence E. Deal
and Allen A. Kennedy.
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I F VALUES ARE THE SOUL OF THE CULTURE, AND WE BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE, THEN HEROES REALLY PERSONIFY THOSE VALUES AND EPITOMIZE THE STRENGTH OF THE ORGANIZATION.
HEROES ARE PIVOTAL FIGURES IN A STRONG CULTURE. Like a John Wayne or a Burt Reynolds in pinstripes, they create the role models for all employees to follow. THE HERO is the great motivator, the magician, the person everyone will count on when things get tough. They have unshakable character and style. They do things everyone else wants to do but is afraid to try . HEROES are symbolic figures whose deeds are out of the ordinary, but not too far out. They show—often dramatically—that the ideal of success lies within human capacity.
AMERICA’S BOARDROOMS NEED HEROES MORE THAN HOLLYWOOD’S BOX OFFICES NEED THEM.
Heroism is a leadership component that is all but forgotten by modern management . Since the 1920s, the corporate world has been powered by managers who are rationalists, who do strategic planning, write memos, and devise flow charts. But we are not talking about good “scientific” managers here. Managers run institutions; heroes create them.
The one quality that more than anything else marks a manager is decisiveness, but heroes are often not decisive; they’re intuitive; they have a vision. They don’t make any decisions, except one: does it fit the vision or not? Managers are busy; heroes have all the time in the world because they make time. Managers are routinizers; heroes are experimenters. Managers are disciplined; heroes are playful and appreciate the value of ‘hoopla—ceremonies and rewards to honor top performance. Both managers and heroes fuss about details, but managers will spend hours refining their numbers, while heroes will plant a garden so that it will look just right.
The management ethic has to do with order, procedure, and fitting square pegs into square holes. HEROES DEFY ORDER IN PURSUING THEIR VISION. And this violates the management canon: you don’t do anything unless you can figure out whether it makes sense . So, while business certainly needs managers to make the trains run on time, it more desperately needs heroes to get the engine going.
If heroes are so important in company life, why do we hear so little about them? Management may have grown amnesiac about heroes, but within a company employees look up to certain people who personify their aspirations. People can’t aspire to be “good” or “successful” or “smart” or “productive”—no matter how much management encourages them in these directions. They can, however, aspire to be like someone: “He’s just an ordinary person, but look how successful he is. I can be successful like that too.” Thus heroes are anointed day in and day out at the slightest sign of successful behavior as employees try to find a realistic match between their personal aspirations and corporate goals. Nowadays, only the most culturally aware managers recognize this phenomenon and take advantage of it.
SOME HEROES ARE “BORN” and have become part of the folklore of American industry: Tom Watson and IBM; Will Durant and General Motors; John D. Rockefelle r and Standard Oil; Helena Rubenstein and her namesake company; Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company; Pierre DuPont and DuPont; Mary Kay Ash and Mary Kay Cosmetics; Ken Olsen and DEC; Dave Packard and Hewlett-Packard; Jim Treybig and Tandem.
OF COURSE “BORN” HEROES ARE IN SHORT SUPPLY . The vast majority of the heroes in American business life are what we call “situational” heroes: ordinary people anointed by their peers in recognition of some aspect of their behavior. Companies with strong cultures take advantage of this natural phenomenon by making their own: the supersales-person of the month, the elder statesman corporate president, the maverick scientist tinkering away in the R & D lab.
Recently one of us witnessed the anointing of just such a hero at a brand-new high- tech company still in the blueprint stage. The company has hundreds of tasks to accomplish in order to begin operations, but the founders have first and foremost chosen a hero. After some discussion, they named a superior inventor as chairman of their new company. He was selected over a high-finance whiz or a marketing dynamo to convey the fact that in this new business, invention is the key. The new company showcased the new hero by giving him a private laboratory and inviting workers and friends in for a celebration. The inventor presided, and after fiddling with his personal computer for a bit, he made a robot suddenly appear, walk across the room, and turn on the air conditioner. What would seem to some outsiders as a joke was in fact a demonstration of faith in the technology to come and, much more important, in the new hero who symbolizes the company’s inventiveness and ambitions. The founders explained that they are thinking ahead to the 700th employee, not the seven they now have. They expect every new worker to discover the inventor-hero puttering in the lab and, with that, understand perfectly the company’s goals.
THE IMPACT OF HEROES
Whether “born” like Henry Ford or “made” like the young inventor, heroes reinforce the basic values of the culture by:
MAKING SUCCESS ATTAINABLE AND HUMAN. A recent edition of “Think,” IBM’s house organ, profiled Joe McClosky, a veteran typewriter salesman in the Seattle branch, after he had logged thirty straight years in the Hundred Percent Club. By extolling the virtues of a veteran salesperson like McClosky , IBM told its young salespersons: here’s a hero to follow. As motivation, McClosky was clearly superior to a memo on a new increase in sales quotas.
PROVIDING ROLE MODELS. Richard A. Drew , a banjo-playing college dropout working in 3M’s research lab in the 1920s, promised to help some colleagues solve a problem they had with masking tape . Soon thereafter, DuPont came out with cellophane. Drew decided he could go DuPont one better and coated the cellophane with a colorless adhesive to bind things together —and Scotch tape was born. In the 3M tradition, Drew carried the ball himself by managing the development and initial production of his invention. Moving up through the ranks, he went on to become technical director of the company and showed other employees just how they could succeed in similar fashion at 3M.
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, believes in offering herself as a visible role model to her employees. She trains saleswomen not simply to represent her but to believe that they are Mary Kay . To inspire them with her own confidence, she awards diamond bumblebee pins and explains that, according to aerodynamic engineers, the wings of the bumblebee are too weak and the body is too heavy for the insect to fly. But bumblebees don’t know this, and so they fly anyway The message is clear: anyone can be a hero if they have the confidence and persistence to try.
SYMBOLIZING THE COMPANY TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD. Lee Jacocca conveys the hope that Chrysler may yet produce another Mustang. Frank Borman strives mightily to tell the world and the employees of Eastern Airlines that service is what really counts. Frank Perdue has tried to brand chickens the way that Procter & Gamble brands soap. We haven’t done the comparison testing to know personally if Perdue chickens are more tender, but Perdue himself has done a good job convincing consumers that they are.
PRESERVING WHAT MAKES THE COMPANY SPECIAL. What better heroes for GE engineers to identify with than Thomas Edison or Charles Steinmetz—both giant contributors to progress. By keeping the memory of these giants alive, GE provides inspiration to a whole new generation of engineers and scientists.
SETTING A STANDARD OF PERFORMANCE. When Ed Carlson took over troubled United Airlines, it was heavily bureaucratized and simply did not work. Carlson knew he had to motivate everyone—right down to the baggage handlers—so he hit the road and logged 186,000 miles touring United facilities in his first year. At each stop, Carlson told his people what was going on in United management and encouraged them to do what they thought was best for the company within the scope of their own jobs.
Adolph Ochs, founder of The New York quiet in a meeting of Times editors who congratulated themselves for reporting a big story very well, according to author Gay Talese, a former Times reporter. “Suddenly Ochs silenced them by saying he had read in another paper a fact that seemed to be missing from the Times’ coverage . ‘I want it all,’ he told them.”
MOTIVATING EMPLOYEES. When Jack Welch, recently appointed CEO of General Electric, was an up-and-coming group executive, he had a special telephone installed in his office with a private number which was made available to all the purchasing agents in his group . If the agents ever got a price concession from a vendor, they could phone Welch and the call would come in on his telephone. Whether he was making a million-dollar deal or chatting with his secretary Welch would interrupt what he was doing, take the call and say: “That’s wonderful news; you just knocked a nickel per ton off the price of steel.” Then, straightaway, he’d sit down and scribble out a congratulatory note to the agent—a profoundly messy, and ambiguous, motivational procedure . But Welch not only made himself a hero by this symbolic act, he also transformed each and every purchasing agent into a hero too.
Perhaps most importantly heroes provide a lasting influence within the organization. The values of Thomas Watson, Charles Steinmetz , General Johnson, and William Cooper Procter still provide the glue that bonds the great organizations they built. A favorite story of Ochs’s at The New York Times—still told today—illustrates the point. The story concerns a traveler who in medieval times meets three stonecutters along a road and asks each of them what he’s doing . The first says, “I am cutting stone.” The second says, “I am shaping a cornerstone.” But the third answers, “I am building a cathedral.” The strength of The New York Times lies in the fact that its staff are cathedral builders, as Ochs encouraged them to be, not stonecutters.
MANAGERS, BUT NOT HEROES. In contrast to Ochs, Harold Geneen who ruled the “sovereign state of ITT” was the epitome of the hard- driving, rational manager. When Geneen took over ITT it was a sleepy little company going nowhere fast.. Geneen, widely regarded as a brilliant man, set out to revitalize ITT by setting up a competitive system of management designed to root out “the unshakable facts” around which sound business plans could be made . To do this, Geneen first decentralized the company into a series of free- standing divisions; then, to act as a cross-check on the judgments of division managers, Geneen established elaborate, financially oriented reporting systems and a strong, aggressive central staff.
The cornerstone of Geneen’s management process was the monthly division-review meetings. In these mandatory meetings—held around a block-long conference table set up with microphones for about 150 people—division managers would report their results and then be subjected to intense, rapid-fire questioning from the sharp-eyed staffers around the table. Throughout the questioning, Geneen would sit quietly at the head of the table waiting for a sign of uncertainty or weakness on the part of the manager. At the first such sign, Geneen—in complete command of the facts because of his hard work and infallible memory—would take over the questioning and more often than not tear the manager’s presentation to shreds. The search for the unshakable fact was such a grueling experience that grown men were known to break down and cry under the pressure.
Geneen’s own ability to achieve results with his unique system of management is undeniable. Under his tenure, ITT was transformed into one of the fastest- growing and most profitable companies on the American business scene. Yet, as soon as Geneen stepped down, a story swept the business world that his successor, Lyman Hamilton, immediately sawed off one end of the infamous conference room table to use for his own, more intimate meetings. As legend has it, he left the rest of the table intact as a symbol of times gone by. We called Hamilton (who was removed from his post by Geneen and other board members nine months after taking over) to verify the story His response: “It never happened.” The fact that such a story circulated—even though it was not true—tells a great deal about the culture that Geneen built a t ITT.
Years later, the story of ITT is a different one . Geneen’s well-publicized success has eluded his successors. Results are down. The press now focuses more on management blunders than successes. The public reads stories of overseas bribery —during Geneen’s reign—by ITT officials trying to survive the stress of the Geneen system.
Managers like Geneen are guided by an ethic of competition, of winning the game. Geneen was a brilliant manager—but surely no hero. Heroes, by contrast, are driven by an ethic of creation. They inspire employees by distributing a sense of responsibility throughout the organization. Everybody performs with tangible goals in sight. There is more tolerance for risk taking, thus greater innovation; more acceptance of the value of long-term success, thus greater persistence; more personal responsibility for how the company performs—thus a work force that identifies personal achievement with the success of its firm. Geneen’s ethic of competition has not survived as well as Thomas Watson’s ethic of creation. Geneen tore his people apart; Watson tore them down only so he could build them back up. Watson’s heroism still drives IBM today decades after his death.
BORN HEROES Some heroes are made, Hollywood-style, in the back lots of corporations. BUT OTHER HEROES ARE BORN. These are what we call the visionary heroes, the people whose influence lasts for generations. Visionary heroes like Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, William Kellogg, Harley Procter, and others established the major businesses of America. The entrepreneurial spirit of the country fostered them, and they in turn became symbols of that spirit.
The success of these visionaries lies not only in having built an organization but also in having established an institution that survived them and added their personal sense of values to the world. Their visions changed the way we do business, and their influence is still pervasive. By working at institutions like GE, P&G, or IBM, employees share the values of Thomas Edison, the Procters and Gambles, or Thomas Watson—heroes who have been dead for many years but whose ghosts still roam the halls of their companies. These heroes have great symbolic and mythic value within the cultures of their companies. In fact, as leadership symbols today they are, in an odd way perfect heroic figures; since they are dead, everyday reality cannot intrude to muddy their exalted images.
In the oral tradition, stories recounting the histories of these visionary heroes pass from generation to generation of managers. Consider Thomas Watson, the builder of IBM. Watson had reached the top of NCR when he was suddenly fired at the age of thirty-nine . He was newly married and out of work for eight or nine long, lean months, when he finally landed a job with a fledgling concern, the Computer Tabulatory Record Company. For his first six years there, Watson had to play second fiddle to the chairman of the board—a financial man who had founded the company—carrying out his decisions, catering to his whims. But he never lost sight of what the company could be. Only when his boss had grown old and Watson had won his trust was Watson able to gain a free hand in managing the organization and to proceed with turning the company into IBM.
His persistence and belief in himself and his vision served him well once again, years later. When the United States was deep into the Depression and countless people were losing their jobs, Watson began hiring salespeople wherever he just stumbled upon them. When asked why, he responded, ‘It’s my hobby.’ In fact, he was convinced that more salespeople would lead to more sales, despite the Depression. He was right, even though all the signs then indicated otherwise.
William Kellogg was another visionary hero who turned out to be right. Few people realize that the cereal we eat today had its origins in the kitchen of a sanitarium. Kellogg was hired by his big brother , Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, to help run his Battle Creek Sanitarium. The doctor kept his thirty-five-year-old brother working twenty hours a day at humiliating chores. He would go to a meeting and tell Will to wait outside the door until he finished his business, and then Will would drive him home late at night even though he would have to be back at the sanitarium at 5 AM. the next day.
Will labored for two decades in this routine. Finally he and his brother John had a falling out. John, a vegetarian and a health food fiend, had long experimented— with his brother—with special foods to improve the care given sanitarium inmates. Along the way, their experiments led them to discover a process for making first wheat and then corn flakes as a cereal breakfast. Will, recognizing the potential commercial significance of these discoveries, wanted to set up a company to serve the broader consumer market; John was not in favor. Finally after years of arguing, Will set out on his own and established the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company against his older brother’s wishes. (One of Will’s fiercest competitors turned out to be C. W. Post, a former patient at the sanitarium.) Six months into production, the factory burned down and Will rebuilt it; but twelve months after that, John’s sanitarium burned down and Will returned to help him, working at the Battle Creek Corn Flake Company at night only Despite all of this, William Kellogg continued to turn out his cornflakes, laying the foundation for one of America’s largest businesses today.
Charles Steinmetz is one of the greatest heroes of the bet-your-company culture of General Electric. A crippled Austrian immigrant, Steinmetz came as a young man to America and worked in Thomas Edison’s lab, which he ran after Edison left. He was responsible for dozens of inventions still used by GE and other companies. But Steinmetz is revered for other reasons. Whenever young engineers joined GE, Steinmetz would invite them home for the weekend in order to learn, sincerely and without political intent, what kind of people they were. Once he adopted one of GE’s leading engineers as his own son—and the mans whole family They all moved into Steinmetz’s house and lived with him for twenty years.
These stories have everything to do with GE’s supportive, sane culture that demands people treat one another fairly Steinmetz once remarked that he read fairy tales because he found them packed with more wisdom than scientific tomes. From anyone else, the statement would appear ludicrous; but from Steinmetz, the example is accepted and probably followed.
Stories like those of Watson, Kellogg, and Steinmetz serve a definite purpose in a rich culture. They embody the values of the culture and pass along important lessons in business success and motivation. Visionary heroes share several unique characteristics that guarantee their survival as legends within their institutions and that become standards of behavior for others to follow. The first and most obvious characteristic is that they were right—about a new product, a new way of doing business, a different organization, whatever. Moreover, they were right in a big way In most instances, their ideas and visions carved out totally new institutions in America. These heroes have proved the old saying “nothing succeeds like success.” Second, these heroes were persistent; indeed, they were virtually obsessed with seeing their visions become reality. In 1908, the country was in a deep recession, but Will Durant continued to manufacture Buicks even though no buyers could be found. This risk-taking drove the fledgling General Motors to the brink of bankruptcy. But when the recession lifted in 1909, Buick’s inventory of unsold cars positioned it for a sales drive that led it to the number one spot in the car market . Often the ideas of heroes run counter to conventional wisdom, and like the heroes in classical literature, each one had dragons to slay and obstacles to overcome. The tales of these heroic efforts add dash to their characters and a mythic quality to their accomplishments.
The third characteristic of the visionary hero is a sense of personal responsibility for the continuing success of the business. Watson once said, “You have to put your heart in the business and the business in your heart.” This is more than the testimony of an obsessive workaholic . It’s the counsel of a heroic individual who strove to build a business that was as important in what it stood for as it was for its success.
John Patterson, Watson’s mentor at NCR, epitomized the sense of personal responsibility visionary heroes bring to their companies. Patterson started NCR when he bought the rights to sell a newfangled contraption—the mechanical cash register—for $5,000 from a group of investors . Shortly after he bought these rights, he tried to sell them back, but the original owners refused—if Patterson wanted his cash back, he would have to make the business a success.
In the 1880s, when Patterson started, goods were most commonly sold by traveling drummers. These colorful characters used to roam the countryside by horse and wagon selling whatever products had been assigned to them on a commission basis. The only problem from Patterson’s point of view was that they were not too successful with the cash register—except for one drummer who for some unknown reason kept sending in orders.
To find out how this one succeeded while the others failed, Patterson traveled along with him, watching, writing notes, and learning the secret of his sales pitch. Then he set up a school and trained the other salesmen, forcing them to memorize the pitch. He kept statistics on their performance, invented sales contests, the 100 Percent Club, and sales meetings. Patterson worked over four decades to learn what selling was all about and then drummed the lessons into his work force. His most famous disciple, Tom Watson, took the lessons further than Patterson could have imagined at IBM.
Patterson was also one of the early businessmen to recognize the importance of the people who worked for him. Again, he took the matter into his own hands. In the early days of NCR, the company exported $50,000 worth of cash registers to Great Britain which didn’t seem to work when they arrived. To find out why, Patterson moved his own desk down to the factory floor . For several weeks he observed the poor working conditions that de-motivated the work force. To correct the problem, he thoroughly cleaned the plant, installed special washroom facilities and indoor restrooms, and opened a subsidized employee cafeteria. Few others would have even considered such actions in the period of the 1890s when Patterson took them.
It is this commitment to making the business strong by treating people well and instilling in them a lasting sense of values—even after the hero is gone—that distinguishes visionaries from other dynamic managers. The values and deeds of these heroes live on in the companies they founded and touch each worker in a very personal way. When one of us was working with General Electric, we drove by the General Electric Research Lab where—in an earlier era and building— Charles Steinmetz had conducted his experiments. The driver of the car motioned to the building and said, “Sometimes I get the feeling I can still see the lights on in there and Steinmetz working away.” For the driver, and for other employees of GE who never knew Steinmetz, he still was a strong influence and serves as an unshakable reminder of the inventiveness that GE holds as a core value of its corporate culture.
Even in today’s sophisticated, tabulated world, visionary heroes still spring up, often with the same characteristics as the heroes of earlier times. Visionaries today continue to build institutions and occasionally even new industries—particularly in the world of high-tech. Ken Olsen and a few colleagues conceived of computers that were smaller, cheaper, and hence more useful than the larger mainframes then available. The result was that he founded Digital Equipment Corporation and virtually single-handedly established the minicomputer industry. We’ve already talked about Jim Treybig and Tandem Computer. And then there is Mary Kay Ash, the housewife, who overcame debilitating arthritis to establish one of the most successful door-to-door sales operations ever. “You can do it” is an ethic that pervades her cosmetic firm, now one of the largest companies in the world headed by a woman. Do Olsen, Treybig, and Ash have the lasting power of a Watson? Only time will tell.
Modern industry needs visionary heroes more than ever before, not only to build new worlds but also to invent better mousetraps. Detroit is desperately in need of a visionary hero to succeed at a seemingly simple task—to build a cheaper and better car. Perhaps the only way such a hero will appear is when one of GM’s or Ford’s senior managers, literally or figuratively moves his desk down—John Patterson- style—onto the factory floor.
Visionary heroes in business—as in every other part of life—are a rare breed. Like the heroic generals and political figures of history they often seem to appear when they are most needed. Yet the function of the hero within an organization is so important that companies with strong cultures often decide to leave little to chance. If a hero hasn’t been born, one must be made.
HEROES WHO ARE MADE. Some of the most successful companies in America believe so strongly in heroes that they regularly and subtly make them. We call these people “situational heroes,” because they tend to arise from particular situations within the business; they are heroes of that moment or day although they can last for years given the right environment. Watson was a visionary hero for IBM; his super sales person of the month is a situational hero. Corporations
need both. Visionary heroes light the way for all employees, but their influence is broad and philosophical. Situational heroes, on the other hand, inspire employees with the example of their day-to-day success.
Corporate heroes are like heroes in a war. Time and time again, the people who think they’re heroes and charge out of the foxhole before ever one else are not heroes; they’re casualties.
The real heroes are those who get medals by doing extraordinary things under the circumstances and who embody the culture’s ethic of success. Companies award these heroes with Purple Hearts by naming them “editor of the year,” or star regional man~ger, or by rewarding the person who lands a big contract, or by tolerating the renegade whose outrageous deeds can be counted on to break tense deadlocks. The employee who wants to gain power and responsibility often looks to these heroes. A new worker will ask an old hand, What am I supposed to do? The old hand replies, Look to Charlie, he’s on the fast track. Charlie is that employee’s hero of the moment.
Companies with strong cultures are quite adept at recognizing and creating situational heroes. Many place their potential candidates in bellwether jobs— certain critical positions that epitomize what the core of the culture is all about. When people know what the hero-making jobs are, they’re energized. They know what’s expected of them; they’re free to be innovative. And over a period of time, the company becomes more innovative; it performs better. Creating such jobs and increasing their visibility is a prime requisite for hero-making.
Unfortunately not many companies have such a keen sense of influence; too many today are promoting the wrong people and sending conflicting signals through the corporate culture. The 1960s was the age of conglomerates, and sharp-pencil financial types got ahead. The 1970s was the decade of strategic planning, and MBAs armed with cats, dogs, cash cows, and stars ascended the corporate heights. The danger here is obvious----industry needs to stop promoting by fad and, instead, must promote people who embody key values of the business if it is to be most successful.
At Procter & Gamble, the brand manager job is as prestigious as a Ph.D from Harvard; it’s the premier young turk job. IBM, that paragon of effective culture- building singles out the fast-track newcomers from its thousands of new employees and then assigns them, for a year at a time, as “assistants to” senior managers. Each of them is clearly a nominee for the hero role. For the year of their assignment, these heroes-to-be are given the task of answering customer complaint letters. A dubious reward? Indeed not. This seemingly ho-hum function ensures an increased sensitivity on their part to the importance that IBM attaches to customer service. Service is of major importance at IBM, a lesson the young heroes never forget. Similarly, at GE, being a general manger is what’s celebrated; the ethic that goes with the turf is that the general manager can handle anything.
Employees don’t have to be leaders or young turks to win the rewards of heroism. Strong-culture companies create heroes throughout the corporation. The following line from IBM’s house organ, ‘Think,” is a case in point: “ All those happy faces, you’d think he was the Prince carrying the glass slipper to Cinderella, when in fact he’s dropping off a Selectric that the customer recently ordered.” Yet this line anoints salesman Don McCroskey a hero for being a thirty-year member of the company’s highly honored Hundred Percent Club. Only those IBMers who have consistently met sales quotas are eligible to join. The trick? IBM deliberately sets their sales quotas so that roughly 80 percent of the force makes the club.
Outsiders may question the value of such an easy reward. The value is that there are more heroes, and IBM can thus rave about how a McCroskey first got to join the club when he received an unexpected order for eight typewriters at the last minute. If you’re having a hard time at IBM, you’ll measure yourself against McCroskey. If he can do it, so can you . Think of the effectiveness of McCroskey as a hero versus a corporate policy memo on the virtues of perseverance. There’s no question which will serve to motivate salespeople to sell one more typewriter every day.
Not only do strong culture companies recognize and reward certain positions within the organization, they also foster the development of certain types of people as their heroes. Perhaps no other situational hero fires the imagination of employees more than the outlaw or maverick: Billy the Kid, Patton, bad boys with a heart of gold. This hero is necessary when the company needs some degree of creativity for a challenge to existing values. Outlaws can symbolize the darker side of an large organization, yet their bizarre behavior will release the pent-up tension everyone feels, and, for savvy companies, help identify areas where change is necessary
Twenty years ago, an outlaw at IBM was famous for driving his big Harley-David-son motorcycle inside the research center, which is normally quieter than a morgue. While the scientists were working busily, he would come roaring down the wide corridors. Yet IBM didn’t fire him, and not just because he was extremely good at what he did. More important, he was useful to the corporation because he was a lightening rod for releasing peoples tension—not at the corporation but at himself. Yet on the whole, the scientists liked him because he was a lunatic. They admired his ability to do things they would like to do themselves, if only they could get away with them.
Outlaws are eccentric but highly competent. They are deliberate violators of the cultural norms, but at the same time they have enough talent to meet the main requirements that ensure their survival within the culture. All those who don’t have the ability or possibly the talent to violate those demands identify with the person who does. Robert Townsend, when he ran Avis, was an outlaw. As CEO he took a six-month sabbatical, which is bizarre behavior. Later, he reported to the press that CEOs had nothing to do; they had to play golf. Townsend, of course, knew exactly what he was doing; he had thousands of people out there “trying harder” while he ostensibly relaxed.
Another outlaw, a young inventor who didn’t like working in a big, impersonal office, got himself moved to a smaller unit elsewhere within his office equipment company But he wasn’t content to stay there. At night, he and his buddies would sneak back into the main factory and “steal” parts because they weren’t supposed to be producing new products, yet that’s what they wanted to do. They soon built an entire series of new products for the company What’s more incredible, more than half of the new products that the company introduced over the next four years were produced by this engineer and his buddies. And he’s a big hero for having actually pulled that off—albeit a hero despised by mainstream engineering managers of the corporation.
As outlandish as it may sound, smart managers actually cultivate certain of these mutineers. At IBM, top management created the IBM Fellows Program to free outstanding technical personnel from organizational constraints. Deciding that the company was too straitlaced, that maybe there were too many white shirts around, this bastion of conservatism through this program encouraged its outlaw heroes— just as they do most things in that highly structured company, systematically. Ads in Newsweek described the program by speaking about IBM’s affection for the “Dreamer’s, Heretics, Gadflies.
One of the outlaws IBM finally hired was a man who owned two California wineries, ran war-game simulations as a hobby, held a Ph.D. in microelectronics, and wore open shirts and gold chains down to his waist. IBM gave him a $10 million budget to spend in any way he wanted and access to four thousand engineers. In all, about fifty such outlaw heroes were consciously and deliberately created as countercultural to the rest of the organization but crucial for instilling the ethic that ideas are really important, that a creative personal style can make an important difference. There are comparable programs at Texas Instruments and at other strong culture companies.
Outlaws are highly valued in a strong culture company; they keep the company evolving. Knowing this, corporate directors commonly place them in creative jobs or appoint them to head R & D divisions—skunk works . In a strong culture company outlaws—despite their maverick bent—can still identify with the main company’s values. In a weak culture, however, mavericks can’t identify with the culture’s vague or contradictory values, and so they turn against those values and become whistle blowers. Whistle blowers are forced out of the mainstream and into a subculture that competes with the main culture. This was John Z. DeLorean’s predicament at GM. As an outlaw, he was tolerated and performed successfully while the GM culture maintained its strength in the 1950s and 1960s. But later, as the culture faltered, DeLorean resigned and got involved in a book criticizing the company’s practices.
A second type of “made” hero is the compass-hero. If a company is in a situation where things have to change and there are no role models for the change, it is good management practice to find role models, plant them inside the company and make them heroes. By doing so, top management communicates that, in the future, their business will be done either more aggressively or more courteously; in any case, less as it was done and more as the new hero’s style conveys.
For years, AT&T had developed an organization of almost consciously average, low-key likeable people called “Bell-shaped men.” All of them, even those high in the executive ranks, were exemplified by the repairmen who traditionally took their sweet time installing telephones and making sure they worked, even though many of these accounts were not profitable for AT&T. But when hone service was dereg - ulated, AT&T employees suddenly needed to learn marketing in their newly competitive business environment. Thus Archie McGill, a former IBM executive, was made vice president of business marketing, and he became a company hero. He had cut his teeth in a much more competitive environment, and as a result, his approach to business is very different from traditional AT&T norms. McGill and his people challenge traditional practices, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, step across organizational lines. Thus, at AT&T, McGill stands out. In hiring McGill, management brought in not only important new skills but a symbol of the new direction.
The hunker-down hero is the direct opposite of the compass hero. Persistence is a highly valued characteristic in most companies, and most of them honor their own persisters by deifying them. For instance, 3M is a very innovative company. Lew Lehr , the current CEO, tells a story about a now-retired vice president who at one point in his career was fired because he persisted in working on a new product idea even though his boss was hounding him: “That’s a real stupid idea . Stop! We gave you a year to try it and it isn’t working, so go do something else.” The worker refused, so they fired him.
But he wouldn’t leave. He stayed on in an unused office working without salary on his idea. In due course, he was rehired and worked out the idea. Years later he became a vice president of the company. He finally did perfect his idea, and his invention earned windfalls for 3M. What 3M people remember is his persistence in doing the right thing—which was to keep working on the new product. A major element in the 3M culture, therefore, concerns doing what you believe in—and persisting at it. As Raymond Herzog, a retired CEO, said, “If a guy has a really good success pattern, I’ll go along with him if he says he can go to the moon on Scotch tape.”
L. L. Bean’s Maine Hunting Shoe spawned a multimillion dollar mail-order business which now has a real hero to protect it. L. L. Bean’s grandson, Leon Gorman , refused to remove a Maine Warden Jacket from the Bean catalog even though none had been sold for many years. Why? Gorman understands that, in the face of a throwaway culture, long-lasting, even permanent, products have built the corporate reputation. And so he is reluctant to drop old items or add new ones. Unlike his unfortunate competitor, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gorman never moves far from the Maine Hunting Shoe, or the Warden Jacket. Employees and customers can depend on the culture of L. L. Bean.
Sacred-cow heroes have a minor niche of their own. Every company every industry has its objects of reverence. Scholars are pale, disheveled, and most disorganized; bankers are solid; high-tech people are roll-up-the-sleeves types. In all these cultures you find heroes who are heroes simply because they epitomize the norms of the culture . They dress like it, look like it, and are liked by everyone. They’re not quite heroes, but are sacrosanct people because though they may or may not be competent, they do personify what the organization thinks it is about.
Take as an example one of the survivors in one of the toughest businesses we know—a manufacturer of large complicated equipment. In a business like this—where machines are years in the making and where it takes up to five years to find out if the team made the right decision—managers tend to be tough, macho, and well into their sixties.
One of the leading engineers at one of these firms was called on to examine a machine that was making suspicious noises . As the expert, he put his ear to the machine to find out what the noises were when suddenly it exploded and burned him horribly down one side of his face. He spent months recovering, but when he finally did, he wore his disfigurement proudly as though to show it off. And instead of feeling repulsed, everybody revered him for it. The most savvy engineers would almost tiptoe into his office to ask if he would check their calculations. They assumed that “any man who had been through all that would know whether you were doing it right. He knew how bad it was to make a bad calculation,” as one engineer said. He is a good manager but an even greater hero, regardless of what he may accomplish from now on. The myth of him does his real work in the company. He is a hero.
In general, sacred cows tend either to be precociously young or old and statesman-like. For a brief, sweet period of time, the corporations young will be revered as its hope for the future. And the same is true with “the old man” to whom more is attributed than is really there.
A word of caution: beware the company with a sacred cow at its helm. Sacred cows rarely make anything happen; they want things to work as they’ve always worked and thus can be blind-sided in a crisis. Only when a company’s historic vision is perfectly compatible with its environment is it better off having a sacred cow at the helm to continue the time-honored traditions.
HEROISM—NOT CHARISMA. In our pop society the excesses of the media often suggest that heroes—born or made—are charismatic individuals, leaders who will deliver a speech, a request, an edict, and in the end inspire everyone to rise in absolute agreement and trust. This is not the picture in corporate America (nor according to James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership is it generally the case elsewhere). On the cotrary, heroes—such as General Woods at Sears, Watson, Ford, Rockefeller, and others—tend not to be charismatic. They’re hard, insensitive, often unlikable sorts—not the John Kennedys of the world but the Lyndon B. Johnsons.
Whatever else he was , LBJ was tremendously effective at getting things done. He established the Great Society and passed an incredible barrage of legislation that changed the face of this country. John Kennedy the exemplar of the charismatic leader, had nowhere near the record of accomplishment in his sadly shortened term as president. Because Johnson saw himself cast in a very symbolic role, he could pretend to be difficult and angry—for a purpose. When Johnson was trying to swing around a male senator, he would call the man into his office, verbally assault him, and then put his arm around him and take him into the men’s room. Once there, he would regale his guest and former antagonist with a story about life on the ranch—only minutes after he had swarmed all over his target.
In recent times, this behavior could be encapsulated in one single infamous sentence of doom: “I just don’t like you very much.” Thus, according to The Wall Street Journal , did Henry Ford IL bluntly explain to a startled Lee Iacocca—a thirty-year veteran at Ford Motor Company who had worked his way right up to the presidency—why he was being summarily fired. If nothing else, Ford knew what he wanted done and did it—honestly and directly, without carping.
In contrast to the warm, humane managers promoted by business publications today, what businesses need are individuals concerned about biuilding something of value and sensitive mostly to the needs of the organization they are now trying to establish . Call it bastardly, but also call it heroic . The point is this: modern manag -ers who try to be humane may at the same time undermine the values upon which the culture of the institution rests . Modern heroes may need to be hard and “insensitive” to keep a company consistent with its goals and vision—the very elements that made it strong in the first place.
Thomas Watson himself confessed to learning leadership unde r NCR’s Patterson, whom he described as “an amalgam of St. Paul, Poor Richard, and Adolf Hitler.” Watson could be a benevolent boss, but even IBMers who worshipped him never considered Watson a friend or, given his obsessiveness, a very pleasant person to be around.
Heroes are concerned with the set of beliefs and values they hold and in making sure these beliefs and values are inculcated in the people around them . On the one hand, this means protecting the people in one’s organization—taking care of them in times of sickness, giving them full employment, and being otherwise responsible for the lives of those over whom you have stewardship. On the other hand, this means not permitting them to fail in any way. When this happens, heroes tend to overreact, sometimes in a dramatic way.
NCR’s John Patterson was unique in his tortures. One of his executives once returned from lunch to find his desk and chair parked outside on the curb in front of the factory. He emerged from the cab to watch his furniture get soaked in kerosene, then set afire. He got back in the cab and drove off, lest he too should be torched. This was not a humane way of being told you’re through; but ‘whatever the former executive had done to deserve this, the deed was probably never repeated by others.
In more recent time, a visionary who didn’t quite succeed in institution-building is Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid, inventor of the Polaroid-Land Camera. He wanted desperately to convey the essence of his social vision of what Polaroid should be to the rest of the people in his employ Land worked to create an environment in which good scientific work could be done, and he wanted to give others the freedom to do it. Thus, he invented programs at Polaroid wherein if employees in Job A thought they might like Job B better, they could sample Job B on a half-day basis for three months . If the trial worked out, they could change jobs . If it didn’t work out, they were guaranteed a return to Job A at no cost to their career. Land insisted on this policy. The whole reason for making new products that would make money was to create an environment in which people could be free to pursue their own interests.
As soon as Land stepped down from the stewardship of Polaroid, the policy disappeared. Managers complained that it ruined production lines because everybody wanted to go work in the lab. Land had the vision but not the hardness to communicate it forcefully to the rest of the organization or to the new generation of managers.
Powerful leaders traditionally consider the company first. Like Watson, they “put the business in their heart” and thus crowd out softer sentiments. It’s a lesson today’s managers should learn as an antidote to the hype on business humaneness. Humaneness is important, but the goals of the culture are paramount.
It is time that American industry recognized the potential of heroes. If companies would treat people like heroes even for a short time, they might end up being real heroes. Employee motivation is a complex science, but its foundations rest on the simple recognition that we all need to feel important in some phase of our lives. Heroes, as they epitomize the best that people can be, are the stuff and hope of culture. Quality circles, management by objectives (MBO), organizational charts, and concepts are useful, but they cannot influence behavior the way a hero can. When companies make heroes out of bosses and workers—that is, when we all accept the responsibility of playing to a world stage—will we banish the sterility of modern organization.
Heroes are the leading actors in a strong corporate culture, yet they are only part of a rich set of behavioral procedures that define how work gets done day by day. These procedures—the rites and rituals of corporate life—provide the fabric in which heroes can be showcased
The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life.
Copyright @ 1982. Chapter. 3 - Heroes (pgs. 37-57)
by: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.
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