Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mike Watkins on The Mistakes New Executives Make

Michael Watkins has a wonderful new post on his blog about the mistakes executives make when they join a new firm. He points out that many executives stumble because they try to recreate the organizations from which they came. There is no question that this is true. I have seen this so many times in my research and consulting.

I can recall one remarkable incident in my class several years ago, when Emerson Electric's former Chairman and CEO, Chuck Knight, visited my class. We discussed Emerson's highly regarded strategic planning process. I told the class that there is no one best way to conduct strategic planning; instead, a firm must match its strategic planning approach to the industry dynamics, firm strategy, organizational culture, and leadership style of the CEO. To bolster this point, I shared a quote from Charlie Peters, one of Knight's top executives at Emerson. Peters once said, "
  • "Many companies come to Emerson wanting to find out what we are doing and why it works. But often, the trip is wasted. Our process works for us because of the type of impact we are trying to have on our businesses and because of our CEO, Chuck Knight – how he likes to operate and his relationship and status with the divisions. Other companies can’t duplicate that."

Interestingly, a student then asked Chuck Knight if he would have tried to replicate the Emerson strategic planning process if he had gone on to another firm, rather than retiring after he stepped down as CEO of Emerson. Knight offered a fascinating answer. He said that it probably would have been the wrong thing to do, in that the new situation most likely would have called for a substantial adaptation of the Emerson process to fit the needs of that particular company. However, he said that he would have been tempted to simply transport what he done at Emerson to the new firm. He said that this is what CEOs do...they rely on what made them successful. It's easy to convince oneself that this approach will work anywhere.

Knight's remarkably thoughtful comments reinforce the point that Mike Watkins makes in his blog. It is incredibly tempting for executives to want to replicate the the methods and techniques that worked for them in other organizations in the past. However, in business, there is often not "one best way" to do things. Success in business is so often about fit or alignment. The methods and practices must be adapted to fit the current situation and context.