Mad Man, Neutron Jack and a Gentlewoman

3-talk-seatedLet’s have a look at three perspectives on leadership from three unrelated sources notable because because all three are exiting the spotlight at this time.

First up is fictional 1960s advertising man Don Draper reinventing himself, again, as the television series Mad Men wrapped up its seven-season run last weekend.

Often cryptic, cynical or sharply critical, Draper’s comments distill what it means to create emotional response in others while keeping yourself at arm’s length. Here are some of my favorite Don Draper quotes.

  • Earned esteem: “You want some respect? Go out and get it for yourself.”
  • Blind to consequences: “I’m glad that this is an environment where you feel free to fail.”
  • That Kant be right: “Change is neither good nor bad; it simply is.”
  • Ego drives the bus: “Maybe I’m not as comfortable being powerless as you are.”
  • Glad-hand holding: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what that is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.”
  • Around the next corner: “Our worst fears lie in anticipation.”
  • Fatalism and the weather: “There will be fat years, and there will be lean years, but it is going to rain.”
  • Dodge the cynics: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

So long, Don. Thanks for making the 1960s relevant all over again.

Smart public relations at reasonable rates

Another take on leadership is on display in the wave of public appearances by Jack Welch, former CEO at General Electric and author of a half-dozen books since retiring in 2001.

Known as “Neutron Jack,” Welch took GE through a series of reorganizations, sell offs, acquisitions and massive staff reductions.

In the 1980s, Welch laid off more than 100,000 workers, becoming a business school favorite by managing large staffs according to a “vitality curve.”

Under this system, workers are ranked by productivity and grouped into 20-70-10. The top 20 percent are visionary, electrifying, and rewarded. The middle 70 percent perform adequately and are considered vital. The bottom 10 percent should be fired. Simple as that. Often referred to as “rank and yank,” this system is credited for a five-fold increase in GE revenue in the 15 years leading to Welch’s retirement in 2001.

As he tours the country to promote his latest book, Welch is likewise attempting to reinvent himself. Appearing at an energy conference in Houston,  Welch advised industry executives to remain focused on long term goals, manage costs and retain the best and brightest people.

Wide, indiscriminate cuts are more harmful to success than fluctuating markets, says Welch. Staffwise, “pay your best people more than you ever paid them. Your best people don’t need to feel insecure.”

When asked about the latest restructuring at GE during which assets he built as CEO are jettisoned, Welch responded that GE remains successful because it “changes all the time with the times.”

Sounds less Neutron Jack and more Stephen Richards.

Communications challenges solved, quickly and efficiently

My preferred example of how organizational change pays dividends are in the parting comments by the president of a state trade organization in Colorado.

After five tumultuous years as president and CEO at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, Tisha Schuller steps down this month having set in motion a “culture change” for oil and gas operators on the front lines of the fracking wars.

According to Schuller, the industry is transforming itself from a combative adversary to a collaborative participant, willing to sit down with communities and explore mitigation and memorandums of understanding.

Patience and perception are the watchwords. “Culture change takes time,” says Schuller.

In her final note to COGA membership, Schuller observes that engaging is far more productive than simply lumping everyone with a question into the “fractivist” category. That’s just lazy and not at all helpful, she says.

Listening, understanding motivations, not overpowering with facts and figures, conversing and earning trust. This how you avert landing on the losing side of the numbers game that is local politics, Schuller says in describing how a gentlewoman engages others on difficult issues.

The permanent, professional opposition to oil and gas will never be persuaded by calm discussions or presentations of fact, she says.

Such entrenched beliefs have reinforced her decision to step down as head of COGA, Shuller says. “I am entirely out of patience with rhetoric, fear mongering, and ‘solutions’ that are completely disconnected from the reality of energy demand and our way of life’s interdependence with oil and gas.”

Schuller’s legacy at COGA will be one of grace and cheerful perseverance. At GE, Welch’s legacy is already being dismantled, and on television, Don Draper’s enigmatic take on persuasion and pleasure will survive in streaming video. And life goes on.

Posted May 22, 2015