I’ve always had an affection for the writing of the late Peter Drucker. His legacy is honored by the annual gathering of the Global Peter Drucker Forum, and there are always some nuggets of wisdom to be had.
During my Ph.D. program, I took an Organizational Behavior course with Wharton’s Kenwyn Smith who assigned all of us in his Ph.D. seminar a daunting task – read a book each week authored by a well known management scholar and summarize it in a five page review. I was new to the program and clearly daunted by this, but Kenwyn suggested that it was time I learned to “read like a graduate student.” Talk about tough love!
Anyway, much to my subsequent benefit, I picked Peter Drucker as the thinker to read up on, dutifully plowing through his many works, from Concept of the Corporation on through. It’s left me with a fondness for Drucker’s many contributions, and with how far ahead he was of his time with the observations he would make. It was great to learn some years back that Richard Straub has set up a regular conference in Drucker’s honor and to keep his legacy alive. I’m just back from the most recent one, and thought I would share some snippets from the sessions.
Here is a picture from my vantage point at the opening session, just to give you a flavor for the grandness of the place – it was situated in the Palace formerly occupied by Austrian royalty.
Microsoft’s Jean Philippe Courtois on leadership transformation
The story of how Microsoft went from being a know-it-all organization to being a learn-it-all organization has become something of a management legend, making sure the company didn’t miss the next big technological transition and showing how it could once again be relevant to the future of big tech.
Jean Philippe added a little local color commentary that I thought was interesting, suggesting three elements of leadership behavior that in his view help explain the dramatic shift in the company’s fortunes.
Firstly, bring clarity to people – simplify rather than obscure. Part of this is providing the context – why are decisions being made?
Secondly, deliver energy. He said the job of a leader is to absorb anxiety and give energy, when all too often leaders create anxiety and diminish energy! Command and control doesn’t work in such a context.
Finally, deliver success. That could be your own success, the success of others and welcoming the ideas of others who have been successful.
He observed that the most difficult aspect of the transformation was that he had to change his own leadership style, and that this required a ton of coaching, some of it very public!
GE Appliances’ Kevin Nolan
I’d first met Kevin at the World Agility Forum last September, and it was great to hear a slightly different version of his own story. The tale is another remarkable one of a company that had been going nowhere rediscovering a path to growth. He observed that this all happened without a big shift in talent – that the talent was better than the performance of the operation.
He offered several examples of how freeing people up from corporate constraints led to the discovery of fast-growth new markets for GE Appliances. For instance, capitalizing on the fast growth of the Recreational Vehicle segment to offer appliances specially designed for RV use. A second idea was an indoor smoker, which he didn’t think was going to go anywhere but which is now a big success. In an interesting twist on typical leadership behavior, he said he had given up decision rights over which products should move forward. “I can’t kill a product, which is a good thing, because I’m a terrible judge of products. Instead, we let the market decide which should go forward or not.”
Insights from Hermes’
Sharon MacBeath, the Group HR director for iconic fashion brand Hermes, talked about how the company also embeds market oriented principles in how it operates. Using two principles called “Freedom to Create” and “Freedom to Buy” she described how the company gives its creative and artistic side tremendous latitude to create products, but that this is counterbalanced by a similar latitude on the part of individual store leaders to accept those products into their unique stores (or not).
She also told some stories from the past – including how Hermes’ original business as providing harness, bridles and saddles to horses and figuring out that they would need to shift their business to survive as the automobile took over. In another interesting example of finding opportunities, the store manager in Cannes determined that men’s ties might be a good business after men kept coming in looking for them (the company didn’t make ties at the time). The reason? The gents were being refused access to the casino! Today, of course, Hermes ties are iconic as well.
Moving toward the edges
One strong impression from the conference was that many of the success stories we heard about came when decisions were pushed to where the context is most clear – often at middle management levels.
A last picture for now, myself with Johan Roos, an old friend and now Dean of Hult International Business School, a player to watch on the business school stage.