So you want to get it right?

December 14, 2012

I’ve started this blog several times and abandoned it as I could not get my arms around the real point I was trying to make.  I think I finally see what it is:  it takes a strong credible visionary to drive an organization to build really good products.


After reading “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, I wrote a “lessons learned” blog for a product builder .  But I did not really focus on how Jobs relentlessly drove everyone to do their best because he was not satisfied. What are the lessons about driving excellence?  Why is it that so many companies do not have a culture of driving to excellence?  I think they are missing someone willing to risk being disliked in order to get the job done and also has credibility to be followed.


This issue popped up the other day when I watched a “60 minute” segment on Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler.  It seems that Tyler is relentless about getting the details right[1] and although the band resents it, they follow him.  His attitude is “My attention to detail is the reason we are successful.”  He is willing to take the pain but he is also good enough to be able to get it right.  His need to be liked is less than his need to get it right.


The leader must have four pieces in place to make it all work on a sustained basis:

  1. Detail - Willingness to stand between everyone else and the details that are not right.

  2. Decisive – An ability to cut through the issues and make timely decisions.

  3. Action - An ability to drive people to action when decisions are made.

  4. Vision - The proven ability to see around corners enough to deserve the leadership position.

Organizations that have leaders with these four attributes seem to do a lot better than those that do not.  Leaders who have demonstrated these attributes can lose one or more of them. Sometimes, when the leader is gone there is nobody who can really fill that job.  Does Apple have the ability to continue making great decisions without Steve Jobs? Only time will tell.  Far too many organizations are willing to keep a leader in place who does not have all four of these attributes.


I happened to be lucky enough to work for Digital Equipment in its heyday when Gordon Bell was the VP of Engineering. DEC was full of contentious brilliant engineers who drove in the direction they thought best.  When conflict rose to the fever pitch, which it often did, Gordon would step in make some decisions and people would, for the most part, follow him. When he left the company in 1983 there was nobody who could fill those shoes. Tough decisions were either not made or just did not stick. There were plenty of brilliant people who tried to step into the role but they usually did not have enough of the attributes to succeed. For DEC, and many other companies, the power of the products kept the momentum going for a long time.  Apple, for example, can ride the current product set for many years without doing something significantly new.


Disney suffered the same fate when Walt Disney died and it took the arrival of Michael Eisner to restart the company.  Sony is suffering because Akio Morita has not really been replaced.   RIM (think Blackberry) has leaders who have not been able to move the company to where it needs to be.  Yahoo, Nokia, HP, and AOL are just some of names struggling in the same way.  


Reed Hastings, at Netflix, has the attributes and is taking the company around a corner that hopefully is prosperous, but he is getting a lot of flak for it.  Luckily, he has the ability to push against all the pressures and drive to where he thinks it is right. I imagine it is not an easy task.  He has control of the company and is doing what he thinks is right.  I hope he wins. 


This leader does not have to be the CEO. Nor is this set of attributes limited to companies as a whole. Departments, divisions, and groups within a company can find such a leader and prosper. HP’s printer division was long an outstanding group in a troubled company. 


The question I would urge you to consider is: who in your organization is paying attention to the details, making decisions, getting people to follow, and has the right to do so because they have the vision? If you cannot succinctly answer the question, can you succeed?


[1] Maybe you have to be called Steven J



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