A CONVERSATION WITH LARRY BOSSIDY, CEO HALL-OF-FAMER,
AUTHOR, AND MANAGEMENT EVANGELIST
You might call Larry Bossidy the prophet of execution. At the companies he’s led, to his fellow executives, and to book buyers everywhere, Bossidy preaches the artless but arduous task of executing all best-laid plans.
There’s no big secret to boosting profits, he says. As a former chairman of Honeywell International Inc., and a former second-in-command to Jack Welch at General Electric, Bossidy advises managers simply to do what needs doing, today and tomorrow and every day, until the effort shows up on the bottom line.
Seems, well, obvious? Maybe. But, Bossidy asks, how do we otherwise explain why so many businesses are falling dramatically short of their own profit expectations? Today’s businesses don’t follow through on the strategies they spend so much time formulating — and they’re faltering because of it, he says.
Bossidy cut his personal executive chops as vice chair at GE and, later, as CEO of AlliedSignal. When that company merged with Honeywell, Bossidy became CEO of the new company. In his bestselling book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Bossidy and co-author Ram Charan, an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, deliver a no-nonsense look at how and why managers don’t follow through on their promises — and offer some advice for changing that.
The title is like Bossidy himself: plain-spoken, no frills, to the point. When American Way asked Bossidy for insights on execution, he frankly stated that follow-through is not as glamorous as idea-generation, and it’s grueling besides. He never soft-pedaled the perspiration required for results that matter. Read on to find out how to roll up your sleeves and get started.
AMERICAN WAY Results are basic to business success, so a first question has to be, why aren’t executives in many struggling organizations executing their plans?
LARRY BOSSIDY There doesn’t seem to be a lot of charm in execution, in making sure things happen. People, for whatever reason, think that it’s not intellectually stimulating or glamorous. In many organizations, there hasn’t been a lot of time devoted to the nuts and bolts of making sure that things get done.
AMERICAN WAY Why has the culture of execution been lost?
BOSSIDY I don’t think it’s been rewarded enough. In too many organizations, people get promoted, people get compensated for things other than what they actually did. If they have good ideas or they are politically proper, they move up, especially in companies that don’t have execution at the core of their being. And in many organizations, execution just isn’t a priority. Managers aren’t measured on it — that’s the problem.
AMERICAN WAY Do people shy away from execution because it implies the possibility of failure, and failure is painful?
BOSSIDY Yeah, but it also has to be expected. You don’t succeed in everything you try, and you’ve got to pick up the pieces and get moving. You don’t cover up and you don’t make excuses. You just admit it, and then the whole organization knows we fouled something up — and that we’ve studied “why” so we’ll try not to do it again. But, nonetheless, we have got to get on with it.
AMERICAN WAY Is it possible that a lot of senior executives don’t really understand the nitty-gritty of their own businesses?
BOSSIDY A lot of them don’t want to get involved in the nitty-gritty of their business, and so they conclude that [the nitty-gritty] is appropriately delegated to somebody else. But that’s a slippery slope, and it gets them in trouble down the line.
Some CEOs think their job is essentially on the outside — visiting customers, dealing with Washington, and so forth. These CEOs believe they can delegate the actual execution through a chief operating officer or the leaders of their business units. There are lots of reasons that doesn’t work, mainly because the leader loses touch with the business.
It’s hard work being a CEO, and the first thing you have to do is understand your business and you’ve got to stay involved in that business. You don’t have to be on top of every detail, but you must have a good understanding of your products and you must have a good understanding of the strategy that will lead to success for those products. That can’t be delegated.
AMERICAN WAY A knock against the philosophy of execution that you promote — which centers around very hands-on management — is that it’s micromanaging. You insist it’s not.
BOSSIDY I have always thought that you need to be deeply, passionately involved in your business. Where you cross the line into micromanaging is when you make decisions for people — you can’t do that. You cannot cross over into where their expertise is, where their dignity is, where their self-confidence is. If you stay away from that line, you can stay involved without the resentment of those people with whom you work.
AMERICAN WAY Do most executives know how to keep score? Part of execution is keeping score. If you can’t keep score, how can you execute?
BOSSIDY I think you keep score on three bases. One, your people. Do you develop people? Two, do you have a good organization? Are you asking that question with sufficient depth to get the right answer? Do you have a good strategic outlook? Has it been confirmed? And three, how are you in operations? Do you do what you say you’re going to do? If you can measure people, strategy, and operations, you have the right yardstick in my mind.
AMERICAN WAY In your book you relate that you routinely — personally — placed calls to check references for high-level hires. How many other CEOs make those calls?
BOSSIDY Up until a couple of years ago, few. Since the book got issued, a lot more, because I get those calls from CEOs who are thinking about hiring a Honeywell person who has left the company or a former AlliedSignal employee. It’s an increasing trend in the last couple of years. And it’s still true that the best places to go for insight are the people this person has worked with. If you can do that, you make a much more comprehensive review.
AMERICAN WAY You’ve talked about a GE program where they look for diamonds in the rough, young managers who might lack polish and may not have gone to the “right” schools, but they know how to get things done. Why isn’t every company doing this?
BOSSIDY That’s the right question. Because everyone will tell you that people are our most important asset. But then, the question is, what do they do to develop people? A lot of companies don’t do enough to ensure that they have the best people in their industry. It’s one of the reasons the book was written. You can’t just talk about it; you’ve got to do something about it.
AMERICAN WAY In some respects, your book could be named not Execution, but Honesty. In places, it reads like a sermon in support of corporate honesty.
BOSSIDY It is. But the truth is, these are big companies that I am writing about. They are operating in complicated environments, and as the CEO you just don’t have time to do anything but confront reality, let the truth come forward, and then deal with it in a way that, hopefully, is constructive. When you try to shape or cover up things and you aren’t realistic about what the situation is, that’s the making of a corporation that will ultimately fail.
AMERICAN WAY How do you draw the line between being tough and being too critical?
BOSSIDY I don’t know that I would make that distinction. There are times that, certainly, I have been critical. But I don’t think there’s any room to be mean. If tough means having high expectations for yourself and your subordinates, and expecting them to be disciplined about getting results, that’s all good. But hopefully a leader is never mean.
I never was happy with leaders who were demeaning of others as if it were a sport. The purpose is to have the business operate better. Criticism should be done in a constructive enough way for it to be received with that intent by the employee.
AMERICAN WAY You’ve said that informality is required in every organization’s culture, because in formal companies there is no way bad news will filter up to the top.
BOSSIDY I also think that’s why, as a CEO, you’ve got to get down in the organization to talk to people and make sure you’re calibrating what’s going on. You’ve got to look at attitude surveys and you’ve got to do something about them. A lot of CEOs get isolated because, frankly, they want to get isolated.
AMERICAN WAY If a young manager said to you, “I personally want to be more focused on execution and I’m not getting much support from my company about this,” what would you tell him or her?
BOSSIDY Let’s assume you’re leading a group. Let’s put down the objectives you have for that group in this year. Then, let’s compose a list of to-dos that the group agrees on, and then let’s make sure that we get all of those things done. Do that and, presumably, your performance will get noticed by people in management. You will be a lot more effective in terms of your own job. And then if it doesn’t take hold — if more respect for execution doesn’t spread throughout the company — you’ve got to go someplace else. If it does take hold, wonderful. You’ve started something that’s going to be a big plus.
AMERICAN WAY What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had in your 45-year business career?
BOSSIDY I think the thing that I remember the most is how much business has changed over the last 25 years, and how it’s going to change again over the next 25 years. The status quos of the 1950s have been replaced with constant change. So today you take nothing for granted; you have no reason to be arrogant about your company or your performance personally, because you’re always going to be challenged [by that change]. You’d better keep your eye on the ball out in front of you, because if you don’t, you’re going to be overtaken. I never would have guessed 20 years ago that the world would move at this pace.
AMERICAN WAY What’s making it move this quickly?
BOSSIDY Globalization. We were really working in a U.S. market 20 years ago. Now we are competing across the world, and that’s had a major impact. The playing field has become far more competitive and far tougher, and it’s going to continue to get tougher.
AMERICAN WAY Isn’t it ironic that we’re talking about execution, a basic building block of business success, as though it’s rocket science? Has execution gotten tougher over the years?
BOSSIDY I think it has. As our society gets more complicated, execution gets more challenging. The bar here has been raised.
Let’s assume I’m going along with a nice product and I have the leading market share, and all of a sudden a competitor comes out with a better product. Now first of all, I’ve got to recognize it’s a better product. Some people don’t; they put down the competition.
But let’s assume you do recognize it. Now you’ve got to galvanize a team, you’ve got to go and design another product that will compete, and you probably need to do it in six months or even three months.
If this had happened five years ago, you probably would have had a year before that new product would make any real impression. That’s how long it would take that product to get into the marketplace and get in front of your current customers. Now it gets there immediately because cycle times simply have gotten much faster.
AMERICAN WAY At day’s end, how do you hope to be remembered?
BOSSIDY To be seen as honest, decent, fair. Of course, some have liked me more than others, and that’s life. But I hope even the ones who perhaps didn’t like me would say, Well, look, he was decent, honest, and fair. That’s the only reputation I’ve ever wanted to have.
john emerson is a new york-based editorial and advertising photographer whose clients include fortune small business, forbes, and personalities ranging from sir edmund hillary to dale earnhardt jr.
bossidy's magnificent seven
in execution: the discipline of getting things done, larry bossidy and ram charan enumerate seven must-have behaviors for any leader determined to execute. the book richly illustrates why the behaviors matter — so if in doubt, grab a copy of the book and get the full story.
know your people and your business really get down with the nitty-gritty. don’t settle for clichés or platitudes. genuine knowledge is genuine power. understand all the facets of your business and your industry. talk with people in the trenches and do that regularly.
insist on realism. how good is your product, your team, your business? benchmark against the best. delusions don’t produce results.
set clear goals and priorities. fuzzy targets won’t get hit. clear targets keep business teams charging forward. quantify goals, set hard numbers for expected performance increases (“we’ll sell 12 more in the next 10 weeks”).
follow through. many businesses collapse under the weight of brilliant but ignored strategic plans. don’t just go the extra mile. be sure to go the first mile, too. make follow-through a daily commitment.
reward the doers. the best performers deserve the tastiest treats. bossidy says “differentiation is the mother’s milk of execution,” meaning that companies that get it hand out the biggest checks to people who contribute the most to the bottom line.
expand people's capapilities. put your people, and yourself, on the path of continuous improvement. companies that are committed to long-term execution are equally committed to making their people the best they can be.
know yourself. what are your weaknesses? attack them head on. never deny they are there, and always hunt for ways to erase them.
it’s not an easy regimen, but bossidy is plain that leading a corporation isn’t easy work. it’s not getting any easier, either, so the managers who make it work hard every day, no excuses.