Tuesday 24 May 2016

Facing up to a Close Shave

VIEWPOINT: Take time everyday to really know what business you are in, says Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, in this thirteenth in his series of articles for IEDP: That greatest of management gurus, Peter Drucker, had a fine way with a quotable quote. So much so that Druckerisms have gone into the annals of management myth. Did he really say that; or did someone, wished he had coined that apt epithet?  We may never know the answer to that question. All we know is that in this fast-paced modern world, Drucker’s musings take on more relevance every day.  The most certainly apocryphal story that as a young consultant, Drucker had the temerity to ask that giant of management, GM’s legendary CEO Alfred P. Sloan, “what business do you think you’re in Mr Sloan?”, got me thinking that far too many business leaders take who they are and the business they are entrusted to run for granted.
Me? Well, I’m old fashioned and I like to reflect on the business at the one time of day when I am face-to-face with myself? As an old, much respected, friend of mine used to advise, “No matter who you are, you have to shave each morning, so use that uninterrupted three minutes to ask yourself, “what business am I in and what am I going to do with it today?” That brief diurnal opportunity, reflecting in your reflection, is a sobering habit that we need to do more of. In case I’m accused of not being all-inclusive in my remarks, those female CEOs can do the same while applying their make-up.
What I’m getting at here is that, it doesn’t matter what gender you are, the very fact that you are supposed to be a leader comes with a responsibility that many of us are all too willing to abrogate. Don’t we need a quiet minute to remind ourselves what we are here to do; have we forgotten our mission? In a world where someone somewhere invents a new business every day, don’t we need to assure ourselves of what business we are in? Go on, ask yourself that question tomorrow morning while you’re staring at the mirror. Will you like the answer you give yourself? If you are honest, you may be surprised at the real answer you get.
As it turns out the great Alfred was wrong. There he was, standing in his vest, braces round his waist, shaving all those mornings simply assuming he was an auto engineer, when he was really providing a customer service.
History doesn’t recall if the young Drucker got thrown out of Mr Sloan’s office, but 70-odd years later it still has a telling effect and provides a real rule for any business leader: don’t be complacent. Revisit why your business exists and who it serves every single day. OK I know it’s easy to regard this as a simple gimmick, but good leaders seem to intrinsically know when things aren’t quite right. And if they want to wrong-foot the opposition you can add another question you demand of yourself. Not just, “what business am I in, but what business do I want to be in?”
That question opens a box-full of possibilities. And with the rapid changes in technology, geopolitical and social upheaval, knowing what comes next has to be on every leader’s agenda. For example, how many business leaders didn’t spot the oil-price plunge and consequent financial mayhem until it was too late to change direction, to name just one incident of many?
That daily habit of staring face-to-face with yourself into your shaving mirror while asking yourself those questions bring me to another Druckerism that fits the shaving scenario just perfectly.
Drucker is said to have suggested, “Results are gained by exploiting opportunities, NOT by solving problems.” But if you don’t know what business you are in, you can’t exploit anything, can you? Who’s next for  shaving ?

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here.