“When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” – T.S. Eliot
When I first began dabbling in the field of Business Process Management, the terminology of this new and strange body of knowledge perplexed me greatly. The concept of elevation, for one thing, was utter babble to me. Or Babel, perhaps. My notion of “high level” carried with it certain ancient connotations—height was a luxury in the ancient world, and only the most powerful civilizations were able to get a view from above the tree tops: from a Babylonian ziggurat or an Egyptian pyramid, for instance. Height, therefore, implied greatness, or to use one of Aristotle’s favorite terms Eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “flourishing.” At the highest Olympian point, one breathes the rarest of airs, or so I thought. But I was breathing the ether of an entirely different allegory. Height, in this new world, dealt not with levels of greatness, but rather with levels of precision and abstraction. In the business world, for something to be “high level” inferred that it was at some level of aggregation and abstraction as to be disconnected from the tactical nuances of day-to-day operations. News to me.
Back in the day, it was common war room parlance to utter something to the degree of “we’re looking at this from thirty-thousand feet” at least once a day. It was not until my first airplane flight that I truly understood what it meant, to look at something from that kind of distance—beautiful, and a little terrifying. I’m more of a pavement-and-pothole kind of guy. The other day, I was skidding down the highway in another rental, that was fortunate enough to still have a CD player hidden amongst its many modern accoutrements. I had borrowed Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” in CD form the local lending library and spent the better part of my ride listening once again to his seminal work. It was a fun listen: Collins began by underscoring some of the key principles of successful companies, and then went on to expound on some examples of excellence, such as…Wells Fargo, and um, Circuit City, and well…Fannie Mae? My ride, all at once, seemed a little…dated. I thought to myself that Collins would do well to write a follow-up to his earlier work and title it “From Good to Great to God Awful.” Now that would keep me engaged while ripping down the interstate! So, maybe Lord Jim’s examples have not stood the test of time. But I believe that the good leadership qualities that underscore successful organizations have outlived their exemplars.
To that point, whenever I think of flashy and charismatic leaders in business process management, I smell pizza. Not because of any neurological condition that would make me a risk on the open road, but due, rather, to a story a man recounted on a flight from Minneapolis to Memphis, regarding the former executive of a large manufacturing company.
Let’s call this former executive “Pep.” Now Pep came to his role of eminence in this company not as an internal promotion, but as an outside hire, touting a flashy resume from one of America’s well-known pizza chains. And his demeanor was more flashy than his letterhead, and greasier than the pizza he peddled. He’d bound down the hallway in a shiny suit, talking like a sailor and firing off one-liners, like the proverbial mouthy guy at the end of the local bar. One of his favorite lines was “yesterday’s news wraps today’s meat.” It was a line, with his delivery, that could drive a man to veganism. Another time, his personal assistant heard him cussing out his computer and rushed to his aide, not to discover that the company’s earnings report was unfavorable, but that he had just lost another game of solitaire. All of this from a guy with a Fortune-500 pedigree. It was his story, among others, that led me finally to realize that CVs are like statistics—they can be twisted to tell you whatever story you want to hear.
Of his many witticisms, one line stood out to me from the others. When commenting on the company’s long-standing issues with the accuracy of its outside sales staff, he exclaimed. “If they wanted you to be exact, they wouldn’t have called it estimating, they would have called it exactamating!”
Exactamating. As you might have guessed, Pep was a rather high-level guy. He sounded like such a high-level, that I imagined him bantering about exactamating in the first-class section of a transatlantic flight, sucking down a gin & tonic, while eating a big greasy slice of pizza, all at thirty-thousand feet.
As you might imagine, he was also afflicted with many of the ailments that bother high-level fellows of his ilk. For one, he didn’t sweat the details—he liked to make big decisions, make them fast, and then walk out of the room and have someone else fill in the finer points. If you locked him in a board room with the VP of engineering, he’d find a way to slip out the ventilation shaft for a smoke before the hour was quartered. To the folks in the trenches, it seemed like simple impatience—he seemed too impatient to be bothered with the details, and similarly too impatient or just incapable of holding any of his people accountable at any kind of detailed manner. But at any level, the company’s failing business results empowered the CEO to request that this high-flyer to take the next flight out of town.
Back to Good-to-Great, one of Collins’ key observations from the book has to do with the demeanor of those with good leadership qualities. Good leadership qualities for business process management, according to Collins, tend not to be of the flashy variety, full of id and ego. Rather, they tend to be soft spoken, less interested in their own presentation than in the success of their company. Interestingly enough, this same company, who sent Pep the Pizza Man packing opted to replace him with a leader who fit Collins’ model. For one, the new executive was a hire from within the company, and not a fly-in, as had been his predecessor. Moreover, the new leader was much less of a showman. Most importantly, the new leader’s obsession with the company’s success drove him to understand the company’s inner-workings at all levels. Don’t get me wrong—he was never going to replace any of the data entry clerks, but his willingness to engage the organization, and its members at all levels was one important part of the success that the company went on to have under his leadership.
I’ll admit it: one of my guilty pleasures is the legalized blood-sport commonly referred to as mixed martial arts, or MMA. As you may be aware, MMA involves the combination of multiple fighting arts, and they best fighters are often the ones who excel in combining these disparate arts into one integrate skillset. One related skill in this field is the ability to “change levels”—to convince your combatant that you are going to attempt a strike, and then drop down for a wrestling takedown and quickly haul your opponent to the mat. In my work as a consultant, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with many different managers and leaders, each with differing motives, differing personalities and differing intensities. I find that the most successful leaders are those who similarly have the ability to change levels as needed—to move from high-level strategic thinking, down to tactical or operational problems, and then back up again. The high-level folks often struggle with this: they are the proverbial kick boxer in a wrestling match—great when they’re on their feed, but hopeless at the ground-level. All that being said, the next time that I have to take a flight, I think I might sneak a New York slice in with me, before I leave the ground.