Monday, February 28, 2011

The Value of being the "Dumbest Guy In The Room"

"I hired great people. But, I was never the smartest guy in the room. If you have ten people on your team and two are smarter than you, then you've got eight of the wrong people. You want to be the dumbest guy in the room and just sucking ideas out of your team."

-Jack Welch, retired/famed leader of General Electric and founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute Online MBA.

A few weeks ago Jack Welch gave the keynote address at the Peopleclick Authoria global conference, and in true Jack Welch form, he made it clear that any organization that would not embrace Topgrading would have to be a C player company, led by a C player CEO and/or dragged down by a C player human resources organization. The A players in the room chimed in with “Of course!” “Do ‘ya think?” and “What company can survive with bosses that don’t try to fill every job with a high performer?”

When a head of human resources in the audience asked Jack what she should do if the CEO is a C player and is not talent driven, Jack said, “Quit – go somewhere else and Topgrade!”

And former talent management consultant to Jack Welch at GE, Brad Smart PhD recommends hiring top talent at all costs in a recent post - Try Stealth Topgrading. If you are a hiring Manager in an organization that won't embrace hiring the best available talent for every position, Smart recommends: 1) Quitting (per Welch's advice) and finding a more supportive organization, 2) Convincing Management to allow you to create a "beta test" for a new hiring methodology, or 3) Taking matters into your own hands and screening finalists to validate top performers yourself.

Creating a Deep Bench of Leadership

Fifteen years ago, I recall calling a local stockbroker and asking him to buy Apple stock for me. It was trading at $16+ per share. Since our office was filled with Apple products, I knew how dedicated and passionate the customer base was. The stockbroker laughed. "Apple is a Betamax," I recall him saying, referring to the high quality, Sony forerunner to VHS that never survived.

Apple Computer had been highly successful throughout the 1980s but had foundered in replacing its founding CEO, Steve Jobs, eventually the board hired "Superstar CEO" Gil Amelio. Amelio had led National Semiconductor from a failing company to become a leading computer chip manufacturer. He was a PhD who had invented product and become a business leader. He had become a darling of Wall Street and was seen as an invincible, A Player - well suited to lead many companies and especially one like Apple which National Semiconductor supplied to.

But, Amelio was a dramatic failure. Apple was on the verge of extinction. Why?

It was a botched hire. Amelio had done a fantastic job turning around National Semiconductor. But, the environment of National Semiconductor in which Amelio excelled was a large corporate organizational structure reliant on process and efficiency for success. Amelio knew how to execute, but understood nothing of Apple's culture of innovation. Apple had an environment and culture rooted in entrepreneurial vision and consumer focused innovation. While technically qualified, Amelio became exposed as a cultural misfit over the next year and a half, fired after 500 days.

Fifteen years later, Apple Computer has become the darling of Wall Street under none other than founder Steve Jobs' leadership. Was the founder, an entrepreneur, the only person who could lead Apple back from the brink? No. But, Jobs did eventually work his way back into the CEO role because he, personally, is the entrepreneurial visionary that can drive the organization.

In preparation for Jobs' departure once more, Apple has this time learned from their early mistakes and been preparing. Several potential successors now exist within the Apple leadership team. Initially, Tim Cook, the COO, will take the helm on an interim basis during Jobs' leave of absence. Says Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie, "The company could not thrive if Steve didn't have an extremely talented team around him. But, you can't replace Steve on some levels." Others within Apple note Jobs' creativity, obsession with perfection in product design and function, his management style, and the force of his personality made him unique in Silicon Valley and in business. The consensus was that it would take several people to fill his shoes. As the New York Times reports in "A Deep Bench of Leadership at Apple" in addition to Cook, several other key executives have been groomed and cross trained to prepare for Jobs eventual departure. The key cultural competencies that Apple has focused on with this cadre of leaders is a team that can execute the business plan AND lead breakthrough innovation at the same time.

Steve Jobs' inspirational leadership may be irreplaceable. But, the assessment of the key competencies that make Apple Computer's culture successful is the breakthrough that is leading to the company's and organization's continued success. New products continue to roll out. Wall Street has barely blinked at Jobs' absence. Time will tell. But, it appears the Apple board has done their homework this time around.