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The CEO and the Monkey

By Evan M. Dudik

Not long ago on a hot August day in Dallas, Texas I relearned an important lesson about what it takes to make the right strategic choices. And what it takes to be a true leader. And I learned a lesson about corporate creativity that sets conventional wisdom on its head.

I was working with the chief operating officer of a $400 million transportation company on revitalizing a subsidiary but highly profitable line of business that had fallen into sad decline as the company struggled to shore up its main line of work. Suddenly a new opportunity to boost the subsidiary's business appeared out of nowhere. It came in the form of a strategic alliance with a Canadian-based company. The chance dangled magically in front of us, singing its Siren song to my client's managers.

At one stroke, it appeared, the strategic alliance would fix the subsidiary's problems, boost revenues. I wouldcreate (what was sorely needed in this case) a true nationwide express service at very low prices between many major cities. Naturally the COO, my client and his boss, the CEO, were enthusiastic when the potential alliance partner proposed to trek from Toronto to Dallas to make an initial pitch. The executive group asked me to sit in on their presentation.

It was a let-down. Their presentation was strong on company history, big on promises of a wonderful future ahead in the promised land of strategic alliance. But there was something there. And after all, they didn't know us. They had every reason not to get into specifics.

Right after the presentation, my client's CEO pulled his team, including me, into a private adjacent conference room. He wanted to give our guests and instant response.

This CEO was a brilliant man. He was former consultant to a major consulting firm. He had a PhD in mathematics from a highly respected university. He had led the company out of near bankruptcy by convincing Wall Street to invest and loan the company many millions of dollars. He had even engineered a number of acquisitions even though the company's balance sheet teetered on the edge of insolvency.

When the CEO brought us into that conference room, he didn't bother to solicit reactions from his senior management team. What he did do was go into a rant and rave - using a nearly continuous stream of swear words, epithets and curses unprintable in this newspaper - to describe our guest's proposal, his conception of what they must have thought of his intellect and to describe generally their genetic background. "What kind of idiot do they think I am!" was the very mildest thing he said.

The reaction of the senior staff - all seasoned executives - was entirely predictable. Heads nodded all around the room, looking like nothing so much as those spring-loaded puppies you see peeking out of cars' back windshields. Murmurs of agreement, where moments of before there had been open-minded consideration.

And in that instant a true strategic opportunity was forever lost for my client. I believe that there was potentially something there - perhaps not in the exact form proposed, but certainly something worth considering. For my client, an open mind was now a shut case.

When we do this - and many of us in leadership do crack the mental whip - we are letting our evolutionary past get the better of us. We have all read many times that we should let innovation and creativity bubble up throughout our organization. But few people tell us that this goes against the evolutionary grain - how hard it is to do this! Recent research states that "In monkey colonies, where rigid dominance hierarchies exist" - sounds like most companies I'm aware of - "beneficial innovations... do not spread quickly through the group unless they are taught first to a dominant animal." But who is going to teach the CEO? "When a lower animal is taught the new concept first, the rest of the colony remains mostly oblivious to its value ... " In one experiment, scientists introduced a new tasty food to lower-dominance animals. It took 18 months for half the animals to try it. And none of the leaders ever touched it. When scientists continued the experiment by teaching a dominant animal a new food, it "spread through the whole colony within four hours." (Cialdini: Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion, p. 290 - highly recommended).

Here's excellent example of leadership behavior that truly lets innovation bubble up from the bottom. It's the case of the CEO of a small medical devices company. This company is not without its challenges: developing new product on a shoestring budget, competing with huge companies like Johnson and Johnson and Roche; raising venture capital is a yearly event. Yet under Mike B. the company has turned around and prospered. And Mike would be the first to say that his company's success has come from the ideas and energy of his senior staff - not simply flashes of his own brilliance.

Mike uses two tools - and to this day, I don't know if he uses them consciously or not. The first tool is silence. In contrast to our blustering transportation CEO, Mike B. makes sure everyone else in the meeting talks first. He has learned to look impassive no matter whether the VP of Marketing is saying something he agrees with or not. For he knows, that as soon as he says something, most of his staff will trim their sails to fit the new breeze. He doesn't just elicit opinions using the standard conventions of "that's a good idea" or " this is a good point." For he doesn't want his staff to play in that favorite indoor sport, scoring verbal points with the boss. His favorite phrases are, instead, "What else? Anything more?"

The second thing Mike B. does is a follow-up to this scenario. Having heard everybody out, he then chooses to discuss a conclusion very different from the one he is leaning towards. Usually it's a candidate for "the second right answer." Or it can even be the approach he thinks is dead wrong. He then gets the group to work this alternative over thoroughly, uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly. Only well afterwards does he reveal his own conclusion - one that stands to gain tremendously from the full exploration of all possibilities and particularly the boring - in of the "second right answer."

Now let's go back to our transportation company! How different the post-presentation meeting would have been if Mike B. had been leading the discussion instead of Mr. Brilliant! There probably would have been a spectrum of opinions about their guests' presentation. Mike B. would have had the benefit of full, unbridled thinking rather than ramming a foreordained conclusion down his staff's throat. Without the arrogance that he alone knows the right answer-the complete, full and unabridged truth--all along, perhaps he would have found something of value or a set of specific issues to explore with his visitors. And more subtly, he would have learned how his own staff people think.

Think back to those monkeys. When the colony's leader takes a taste of the new food, within four hours everyone has tried it. That's just what Mike B. does. By eliciting opinions, abstaining from judgment and by picking up on a point of view at odds to his own, he shows by the example of leadership that new ideas can be tasty. Yes, you can get creativity and new ideas and risk-taking to bubble up from all levels of the organization. But only if you show by example your willingness to try them out. Try it sometime. It works.

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