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Saturday, September 27, 2008

A short note on executive function 


One of the big one-way arguments in the current election season involves the question of "executive experience." Most people who have never been executives in some organization larger and more impersonal than a family do not know what an executive's function is, would not be able to describe it, and in all events believe that it is over-valued by some enormous margin. There have been countless books on the subject from Peter Drucker alone, but all descriptions of executive function involve a combination of analyzing choices, making decisions, persuading and inspiring people to execute those decisions, bearing the final responsibility for those decisions, choosing people who also know how to do these things, and leading them to act in ways that further your own decisions.

Suffice it to say that there are many people with executive titles who are not actually executives but rather gamers of the bureaucracy. There are also many people who aspire to be executives with absolutely miserable preparation for the job. Most lawyers fall in this category; I know, I am one, and required massive revisions to my cognitive style over many years before I became an even remotely effective executive. For my money, this is why the Democrats, who almost compulsively nominate lawyers for executive positions, have an uphill battle in persuading those Americans who understand what it means to be an effective executive.

Anyway, experienced executives know certain things that other people just do not know. This is one of them:

That said, I will humbly offer one insight from my too-many years of this and that: Always... no, never... here we go - there are generally a number of plausible strategies available at a moment of decision. Picking one and pursuing it with commitment will probably lead to success; waffling and switching strategies every six months generally will not.

Exactly. If you choose poorly at any momentous juncture you might not succeed, but if you waiver after your decision you almost certainly will not. Commitment to the course of action is often more important than the course of action itself. Not always, but more often than not. Many Americans -- other than symbolic analysts (such as lawyers, academics, and journalists) who can think and argue but do not know how to lead -- understand this instinctively. That is why the charge of "waffling" works, and why so many people in the Democratic elites do not understand why it works.

16 Comments:

By Blogger smitty1e, at Sat Sep 27, 10:09:00 PM:

I'm reminded of Margaret Thatcher at the Naval Academy in '93 or '94 at a Forrestal Lecture: "Consensus is the absence of leadership".
Which is not to be taken as an endorsement of autocracy, but more in line with the determination of the quote you reference.  

By Blogger Anthony, at Sat Sep 27, 10:20:00 PM:

This is a really good observation, and I think it show why McCain, while never having held an executive political position, can still be ready for the presidency: his experience in the military involved just such planning and decision-making, and then seeing a plan through. And, without saying it explicitly, I think you made the argument as to why Palin is more prepared to be Veep than Biden -- or even Obama.

Slightly off-topic, but my own experience bears this out: I'm an avid chessplayer (avid, and bad). All the books on chess will tell you that it is better to play with a plan and stick to it, even if it is a bad plan, than it is to play aimlessly or change your plan every few moves. As in Chess, so in governance?  

By Blogger Escort81, at Sat Sep 27, 10:57:00 PM:

TH - You should be congratulated for being so self-aware that you realized that you had to undertake "massive revisions to [your] cognitive style over many years before [you] became an even remotely effective executive" because of your previous training as a lawyer. I have worked for a lawyer-turned-CEO, and while he was a great guy, he was not a particularly good manager, which led to several significant business problems.

My best friend is a lawyer-turned-president of a large company, and he also realized he needed to re-learn his approach to business. Fortunately for him, he only practiced law for a few years after finishing law school and passing the bar, so he made the transition relatively early in his career. There's no question that a legal background is helpful, as long as it is a tool in a toolbox and it does not dominate one's outlook.

I also agree that some background in military service is helpful in learning leadership qualities that should translate well in business. Everyone in my father's generation served in WWII (my father as an mustang officer in the U.S. Navy), though it is rarer now for graduates of elite universities to do so. I know a number of retired military officers (who have been in combat) who have transitioned into the civilian workforce after putting in their 20, and ironically, the
decisiveness that served them so well in combat tends not to comport with the more consultative decisionmaking process that exists in so many firms.  

By Blogger Rebecca, at Sat Sep 27, 10:59:00 PM:

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By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sat Sep 27, 11:18:00 PM:

Operations Research taught me that there can be many feasible/optimal solutions in the problem space.

Many people will choose a solution that lays outside the feasible solution space and fail.

Just don't be one of them and you'll have something to sell.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 12:09:00 AM:

For those trapped deer-in-headlights to the "approve-a-meter" lines at the bottom of the screen last night: Perhaps it's not that the American people disapprove of wafflers -- it's just that they understand the "idea" of waffling as a tangible charge.

When things get nuanced, the ratings take a dive. Paying attention long enough to understand why someone rethinks a previously held position seems, sadly, beyond the soundbite generation at the moment.

For those who have had the privilege of performing the executive function well -- whether in a family or another collegial environment -- know that some of the most satisfying moments come from working a problem together with others and, occasionally, coming to a better ultimate solution because of the contributions from the group as a whole. In these cases, it can surely be said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

(I'm sure that makes me a socialist.)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 01:14:00 AM:

Perhaps so, fait to middling, but once a plan has been approved it's important to stick to it, and not apply modifications unless they're in response to demonstrably changing circumstances.

I worked once in a team environment where "leadership" was anathema, and nothing of significance - nothing! ever got done through the consensus building approach, because you never achieved final buy-in. There was always somebody willing to tack on additional tasks or requirements just because, hey, he thought of them just now and we all really ought to respect his input. Process over product every time.

The only projects I successfully completed were ones where I took personal responsibility, devised and implemented a plan with minimal input from trusted sources, whom I was certain wanted a solid finished product, and carried it out either on my own or with assistance from those who had demonstared they bought into the project.

And my status reports to the team were essentially "We've started X." and "X is online and running."

Might I have made better decisions with full input from the team? Not in a million years, not from that team.

The reason was, there was no accountability. And if you do not have an executive with accoutability, and unless somebody appears who is willing to take it, you have little chance of seeing a task through.

Incidentally, f to m, a true socialist would not work within a team environment. The team in that case is a fig leaf and rubber stamp.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 01:22:00 AM:

Sorry, fair and middling.

I am sofa king...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 08:07:00 AM:

Wait just a minute, Tigerhawk.

You're saying that bringing in the consultants (pick the big ones, pay them lots of money) to do reorgs and rightsizing and buzzword-of-the-month doesn't work?!

Yeah ... I work in a big bureaucracy ... I'd trade you 10 execs for one leader who has the chutzpah to call the team on the carpet, and just say "we're going here, now go get it done".

If there's a game/competitive landscape changer, then adjust. Until then, just get it done.

Unfortunately, too many of our executives and politicians suffer from Al Sharpton fever: when the cameras start rolling, you step between them and the action, pretend to be controlling the amplitude and volume, and promote yourself.

Being effective has nothing to do with it. And that needs to change.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 09:46:00 AM:

There is an old adage that you don't change horses mid-stream unless you want to drown. OTOH, General Lee stuck to his plan at Gettysburg and that didn't turn out so well.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 10:00:00 AM:

Fair to Middling:
Paying attention long enough to understand why someone rethinks a previously held position seems, sadly, beyond the soundbite generation at the moment.

Unfortunately, the soundbite generation may not remember how ∅bama made contradictory statements within 24 hours on Iran, for example.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Sep 28, 10:06:00 AM:

He also over-rode subordinates who had not fallen in love with their own legend. Longstreet could have won that battle...

I like playing historical wargames, and there are many many that are set during the American Civil War. There's a witticism amongst them. "The Confederacy lost Gettysburg only once; when it really happened." I heard a similar story from the Naval Academy, that every class of midshipmen refights the Battle of Midway in a wargame. And every year, the Japanese win.

Back on topic: A bad plan is better than no plan, because a bad plan can eventually change into a fair plan. You can't learn from doing nothing.  

By Blogger Andrewdb, at Sun Sep 28, 10:59:00 AM:

Your comment about "persuading and inspiring people" is well taken. I am reminded of my father's oft repeated recollection from Truman about Eisenhower - "poor Ike, he'll get here [as president] and start giving orders, and nothing will happen"

As a lawyer with 20 years in a private, corporate practice, I am very aware of the fetish for "process over outcome" that you have often spoken of. I would be interested in more detail about how you had to re-tool yourself for the business side.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 01:35:00 PM:

I am one of those people who is not an executive of anything larger than my family, so take my comments as you will. I am not stupid either, so please fill me in in a non-condescending, non-Socratic way...

Your arguments are presumably for executives who lead capably. Who should be rewarded or denied reward in the several cases of executives whose are driving the economy down? Do you hang it all on the boards that hired them?

and in all events believe that it is over-valued by some enormous margin

In many (not all) events it does seem to be overvalued by an enormous margin. If they are rewarded for leadership, they ought to be denied reward for failure to lead in the right direction.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Sun Sep 28, 03:07:00 PM:

Space Commando -

If they are rewarded for leadership, they ought to be denied reward for failure to lead in the right direction.

Agreed. Executive compensation can have any number of components: 1) salary, 2) cash bonus (usually tied to some annual metrics; could be zero or could be larger than salary), 3) some form of stock options (usually taxed as ordinary income, and in the SOX world, typically granted with an exercise price equal to the then current stock price, so it may not be worth anything), 4) as part of a LTIP that happens over years of service, common stock that can be held and taxed when sold as LTCG, 5) life insurance, auto allowance, health benefits, etc.

Ironically, post-SOX, because of a fear that execs would manipulate the numbers to make stock prices go up artificially, making their options worth more, many senior execs have somewhat higher cash salaries and fewer stock options.

I am all for the bulk of executive compensation being contingent on performance and back end loaded so that execs are basically rowing in the same boat with shareholders. It would be hard to find anyone that likes to see a CEO receive a $20 mil. + parachute when his company has just tanked (except if you're related to the former CEO).

Boards have to compete in the market for senior executive talent. I think that market (at least in the financial services business) just had a significant recalibration!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 28, 03:49:00 PM:

Hating on the symbolic-analysts, TH? For example, everyone ever associated with managing a quantitative investment strategy? Or basically every applied scientist/physicist/mathematician, each of whom (in my mind) requires a fair amount of executive potential to see through long-term, nuanced, milestone-driven projects?

Qua?  

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