Thursday, April 12, 2007

Imus and the Problem of Cutting Slack for the Incremental A**h***

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Some random thoughts on cutting slack for people who get you results - out there in the real world versus in the academy. . . .

Don't get me wrong; I'm a alumnus of two companies that styled themselves to some extent in the General Electric school of leadership development, most of which was the work of Jack Welch, and I admire much of what that organization has added to the theory of enlightened management and Meatball leadership.  Of course, one of the problems with living in the real world is that it's not just academic theory that sometimes fails to come through in reality; sometimes real world management theory doesn't either.  One of the toughest calls is when you cut some slack for a performer.

Here's a section from Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater (McGraw-Hill Professional, 1999), and it's very similar to something in Noel Tichy's Control Your Destiny, also about Jack Welch's management theory.

In describing the four types of GE managers and assessing which one will ultimately succeed - and which ones won't - Jack Welch is essentially suggesting that the only way to last at General Electric is to get on board, to become a team player, to adapt oneself to the company's values and culture.

The first type delivers on commitments - financial or otherwise - and shares GE's values.  Welch likes such leaders and will make sure they stick around.  Their futures are an easy call:  "Onward and upward."

The second type does not meet commitments (read "bring in a healthy balance sheet") and does not share GE's values.  They are not Jack Welch's type of leader.  Out the door they go:  "Not as pleasant a call but equally easy."

The third type misses commitments but shares the values.  Though many business leaders would find such a person totally unacceptable, Welch is not so unforgiving of this type.  He cares more that a manager adheres to company values than meets the numbers - and will give this person every chance to succeed:  "They usually get a second chance, preferably in a different environment."

The fourth type delivers on commitments but does not subscribe to GE's values.  This person created the greatest quandary for the chairman:  "They're the most difficult to deal with."

Why is this relevant to Don Imus?  GE owns NBC Universal, Inc.  According to GE's 10-K, NBC Universal's operations "include cable television networks, principally USA Network, Bravo, CNBC, SciFi Channel, MSNBC, the Sundance Channel and entertainment channels across Europe and Latin America."  Imus himself has no employment relationship with MSNBC or GE, because MSNBC contracts with WFAN in New York to simulcast the radio show.

As a thought experiment, though, assume Don Imus were an NBC Universal executive.  (I recall an article/interview about Matt Lauer, the Today show host, several years ago, and I am pretty sure he got GE stock options as part of his compensation.)  Uttering an offensive racist comment when you are mainstream media (as Imus has become) is probably the one unforgivable act; one wonders if MSNBCMsnbc dumped him because of GE values or because Staples and Procter & Gamble had pulled their advertising.  I really wonder, if a GE executive had gotten up at a national sales meeting and said the same thing, if he would have been reprimanded, penalized, fired or what.

Unfortunately, this is an easy case, with our reactions to it affected, I think, by the availability heuristic in the same way we react to an airplane crash that kills 100 people in a day, but are inured to the same number of traffic deaths in the U.S. on the same day.  Imus's predicament is an airplane crash, but his "performance" (i.e. results) were so outstanding (e.g. his ability to bring the power elite onto his show) that there was speculating about his getting cut some slack, at least over the weekend.  But what about the more insidious problem of cutting slack for the character I like to call the Incremental A**h*** (versus the Quantum A**h*** who brings on an Imus-like train wreck).  Under GE standards, the Incremental A**h*** is as harmful to the organization as the Quantum A**h***.  Every quarter he/she brings in the financial results at a cost to values like teamwork and respect.  I DO think GE weeds those people out, but the theory sounds a hell of a lot cleaner than the practice in fact looks.

006093664901_bo2204203200_pisitbdp5 A student heard me say something about Wittgenstein, and loaned me Wittgenstein's Poker, a neat little book exploring the only, and somewhat incendiary, meeting between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, which occurred at the Moral Science Club at Cambridge in 1946.  If you believe the characterizations, both Wittgenstein and Popper were intellectual bullies, but Wittgenstein had the added "benefit" of being an interpersonal nightmare.  If you had the chance to have a Wittgenstein - somebody who is either an Incremental or Quantum A**h***, but will also be marked as one of the two or three greatest thinkers of his or her era - on the faculty, a tortured genius, on the faculty, would you do it?   My intuition is that you would accept the flaws in view of the benefits.

I'm not sure what my intuition is about the law firm or corporate world.  I have seen Incremental A**h***s tolerated, and I have seen them fired.  For example, nobody seems to be denying, whether or not the specific offensive words were spoken, that the partners singled out in the Charney/Sullivan & Cromwell fracas were in fact somewhere on the scale between Incremental and Quantum A**h***s.  Does a business or law firm, by the nature of the work, have less "space" for the gifted sociopath than the faculty hallway?

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I still have mixed feelings over the whole Imus ordeal. Part of me believes he's getting what he deserves and the other part of me thinks its really that big of a deal. If you haven't seen it already, you should check out this story over at Highbrid Nation. The guy who wrote it worked at WFAN with Imus and gives some interesting insight into whether the man is really a racist or not. You all should check it out if you get a chance.

Posted by: Evorgleb | Apr 12, 2007 9:46:39 AM

Jack Welsh's management paradigm is an interesting way to look at the current Imus controversy. But, in fact, when Imus insulted the Rutgers team, and offended all decent minded people, he was doing exactly what he has been doing for decades. That's why he was so successful and it's why MSNBC kept Imus on for so long. So, according to Jack Welch's paradigm, Imus fit the first category of manager (Imus delivered on commitments and shared MSNBC values (which Imus himself defined)). According to the Welch paradigm, it should have been "onward and upward" for Imus. But, I'm glad Imus has been fired. I'm a Republican.

Posted by: Joe Bowman | Apr 13, 2007 6:37:43 AM

Joe, I was going to make more of the GE relationship but backed off. First, within GE, there are no MSNBC values, but only GE values. Second, because Imus wasn't a GE executive, but the talent on a show MSNBC contracted to obtain from CBS, he really is a "product" and I suppose for that reason isn't really subject to the GE results-values matrix. Third, the more interesting hybrid is on-air talent at NBC, like Al Roker or Matt Lauer or Brian Williams, who I think are compensated with GE equity. There your question is a good one - if your results, say as with Chris Matthews, are determined by your ability to be just a touch obnoxious, where do you fit? But I don't think Imus really fit that. He's just a train wreck for GE in the same way that a product recall would be.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Apr 13, 2007 10:50:59 AM

Do you really care what Welch said about "management theory" any more than what what Mao Tse Tung said. Their unofficial policy is "freedom in Iraq". They are oblivious of physical reality but know they can spin anything they want in the press and subsequently have the right lawyers and courts to back them up. Freedom in America? we deserve a second 1929. Technical specifics are comical because it's like the professor that ordained Americans need more education to understand science and math. She does not grasp that when they say "everthing is merely opinion", these personalities are gloating how powerful they are and what they can get away with. She is ignorant, along with self serving accademia, that there is no organized crime in America or are too sleazy to or both.

Posted by: no brainer | Mar 21, 2008 7:27:42 PM

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