Plot Thus Far: In The Business Maverick #5 I warned of the dangers of hiring the
best person for the job, with a focus on demanding that your recruiter or VP of
Human Resources find an "expert" to fill that demanding top management slot you
desperately need filled.
I warned that contrary to conventional wisdom,
specialists with track records of spectacular success can lock you in to
solutions that put you in grave danger of failure when you need to tack the ship
of business to a new heading.
So what is my recommendation? If not to
hire "the best person for the job," then who? At the end of The Business Heretic
#5 I promised a more radical solution. Here it is. For your top management
positions, I recommend hiring just the opposite - a generalist.
I mean by a generalist? Here's the official IBM biography of chairman Louis
Gerstner, who has led a spectacular turnaround of a behemoth company many had
written off for dinosaur-like extinction:
Prior to joining IBM, Mr. Gerstner served for four years as
chairman and chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco, Inc. This was preceded by
an 11-year career at American Express Company, where he was president of the
parent company and chairman and CEO of its largest subsidiary, American Express
Travel Related Services Company. Prior to that, Mr. Gerstner was a director of
the management consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., Inc., which he joined in
1965. A native of Mineola, New York, Mr. Gerstner received a bachelor's degree
in engineering from Dartmouth College in 1963 and an MBA from Harvard Business
School in 1965."
Look at that breadth - from engineering to MBA
(no intervening work experience!) to the stratosphere of generality, strategic
management consulting to travel services to the food industry to the
computer/information industry! Now Louis Gerstner is the kind of person who is
going to be a superstar at whatever he turns his hand to. He probably would have
made one heck of an engineer if he'd chosen to remain in his undergraduate
specialty. You may not be quite in the market for that level of horsepower.
However, we can learn from his biography. The ideal generalist is:
Someone who has been highly competent in a variety of roles - but not
necessarily a superstar in every one.
Now the crucial thing is that this
generalist have in his or her background a few years of highly successful
success in a specialization - and then have been promoted or surfaced into a
more general capacity. For example, one of the best COOs I have ever met, whom I
call Tom, has the following background:
- Master's and doctorate degrees in public administration - not an MBA and not
an engineering degree
- Leading research and development projects at the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA)
- Deputy CIO for the Department of Defense
- B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering
- Managing the design and development of Navy shipboard missile, display,
computer, and communications systems.
- Managing software and system development for sensor and communications
spacecraft, communications, and computer networks; architecture development of
very large defense system networks
As important as these resume
qualifications are the broad personal interests of this manager, including
philosophy, psychology, languages, political science and auto racing.
is crucial to find a generalist with specialist experience because:
- You want someone who "has been there" - knows what it's like to be a
specialist and can relate to their needs for precision. This helps in
communicating with specialists you'll hire lower down, or contract with.
- You want someone with a built-in "fraud detector" - someone who can
understand the interlocking logic and details of specialists you hire or
contract with - and can tell when statements aren't "hanging together." You can
only acquire a "fraud detector" by actually being on the front-lines of
specialist work. Otherwise any old proposal or objection can sound good to the
It doesn't matter so much what the person
has specialized in. Why? Because most fields of human endeavor in the arts and
sciences have similar overall logical structures - whether it is engineering or
marketing or philosophy or advertising or finance. Each one has its
peculiarities - but the overall structures are the same. A generalist, if he or
she is any good is able to comprehend the entire structure of a field by getting
well into one.
That very fact is what allowed Louis Gerstner to jump
from engineering to consulting to travel to food to computers. As an engineer
and a consultant, he'd learned what to look for to get a firm understanding of
each industry. As he freely admits, he knew next to nothing about computers or
chips when he took over at IBM. But what he did know was how to learn enough
about them and the business to lead those who were the ultimate experts.
Equally important to having both a general background and specialized
experience, it's a good idea if your candidate has resurfaced to being a
generalist having once been a successful. Otherwise you'll get someone who was
never really comfortable dealing with all kinds of different things, but
actually seeks the protective confines of a specialty. That's what so impressive
about Tom's resume above.
Don't get me wrong: identifying a generalist
doesn't mean identifying somebody who is "soft." You want them as hard-nosed-but
as open-minded-as you can get them.
I believe that this kind of person
will become only more important in the future to successful companies. For
example, the heroes of the moment are the geeks who can grind out excruciatingly
complex computer code under incredible time pressure. This is a specialized -
and highly laudable talent. And many of these folks are achieving high status as
managers and executives.
But I wonder how far that will carry them when
the production of computer code becomes more automated. Where will they be when
computing becomes, as it will, more biological than mechanical, and when
computing itself succumbs to gene-based biology as the dominant force shaping