Public Hangings in America–Real Leadership

I recently heard Louis V. Gerstner, IBM’s former Chairman,
give a talk to a group of managers. 
Though I’m certain, during his hour-long presentation, that he provided
more wisdom than I could ever hope to absorb, he made one far-reaching
statement that really resonated with me. 
He said…:

I support public
No, Lou wasn’t advocating a throwback to the wild west in
the 1800’s; nor was he hoping to pull our cultural progress back to that of
some less civilized third world country.
He was referring to something almost as difficult and
painful to senior managers today as a real, rope-around-the-neck public hanging
would be…  Lou meant that – when
necessary – be prepared to readily and publicly make the big, bold
terminations.  Firing someone really
significant, for the right reasons, gets big attention.
Now, I’m not saying that a senior leader should seek out a
high-profile, key player within the organization and indiscriminately terminate
his or her employment.  What I am
talking about is holding those superstar employees to equally high standards of
behavior and expectations within the organizations.
Lou gave an example of his tenure at IBM.  Shortly after arrival, he was implementing a
series of relatively insignificant, “baby-step” changes within IBM. 
This was obviously before Gerstner wrote his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” 
Anyway, IBM’s European CEO, immensely successful (at a time
when not much in IBM was even moderately
successful) at running those operations, took exception to many of the things
proposed in Lou’s communications to field employees throughout the world.  Instead of hopping an airplane to the U.S. to chat
about it, he simply withheld those communications.  He made it clear to his staff that Gerstner
just “didn’t understand Europe,” and his ideas
wouldn’t work.  No sense upsetting the
European employees.
Lou Gerstner, of course, took exception to this.  He viewed it as (a) a demonstrable lack of
respect, and  (b) a public display of
defiance designed to draw a line in the sand.
Lou jumped on an airplane, flew to the European CEO’s
office, and described to him, in great detail I’m sure, his newly minted
severance package.  Do not cross go, do
not collect $200.  And he wasn’t shy
about telling others why he did it.
Now, why do that? 
Obviously, IBM needed successful executives, and was suffering a serious
dearth of the same.  Even more, however,
IBM needed a focused, synergistic leadership team, pulling in the same
direction toward the same goals. 
No lone wolfs, no “beats of a different drummer.”
I worked for a CEO once who did something similar.  We had an executive, with P&L
responsibility for about 30% of our total annual revenue.  Most of it with pretty decent margins.  The problem, though, was that this executive
felt that the rules of engagement and accountability suffered by the rest of us
simply did not apply to him.  Slowly, it
began unraveling what was previously a pretty solid leadership team.
To his credit, the CEO terminated him.  And when he did, we all realized and
understood the significance, as did the rest of the employees in the
organization.  If the boss will whack that guy, one of our most successful general
managers, he probably won’t stand much for me not carrying my share of the
The impact, both with the CEO I mentioned here, as well as
within IBM with Gerstner’s example, was significant and meaningful. People
noticed, paid attention, and internalized the potential of such a public event.
Public hangings, so to speak, are messy, ugly, difficult,
and can create short-term chaos in an organization.
And they are as necessary as breathing.  Think
about it…


Kevin Berchelmann

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