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Hey leader, where’s your rocket?

In the early 1990s, IBM was a company in deep trouble. From being a globally dominant vendor of information technology, it was floundering. It was trapped in the thinking of its past, and failing to move with fast-changing trends in technology.

An outsider, Lou Gerstner, was brought in to revive the giant corporation. In his fascinating book The Three-Box Solution, Vijay Govindarajan, distinguished professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, has a telling anecdote about how Gerstner went about it.

Gerstner had identified a core issue: IBM’s future lay in deepening its relationships with its customers. But he came across a troubling habit. During the company’s customer events, senior executives would make only brief appearances and then disappear without engaging customers. They seemed to think they had better things to do. Gerstner was appalled to see this.

When a new conference came up, this time for North American CIOs, Gerstner told his senior team: “These are your best customers…I’m going to the conference. I’ll be there the first night. I’ll have dinner with them. I’ll have breakfast with them. I’ll have lunch with them. And any IBM executive who wants to attend will stay for the whole two days.”

During the conference, he is reported to have listened keenly to customers and singled out IBM executives, saying “this executive will sort that out and get back to you this afternoon.” One executive at the time noted: “This was like a rocket through the company.”

If you are a leader trying to make a radical change in an organization, this is a very important lesson. You have to get people’s attention, quickly and dramatically. You need a rocket.

Professor Govindarajan relates the ‘rocket’ idea to Pope Francis, too. He came in wanting to modernise a hidebound Catholic Church. He did not beat about the bush. He was loud and vocal. He personally and visibly emphasised humility over ceremony; service over doctrine. He moved those who resisted the change away from the centre of power. I have written about the Pope on this page before. He was a man with a plan, and he carried a rocket.

We can add more examples of leadership rockets. Satya Nadella took over the reins at Microsoft knowing he had to haul the organization, kicking and screaming, into a “mobile first, cloud first” world that had passed Microsoft by. He did not waste any time. Within two months of taking over, he announced that Microsoft would give away its Windows operating system to smartphone/tablet manufacturers. He turned competitive relationships into collaborative ones. He trimmed 18,000 jobs. He tells Microsoft employees to embrace innovation, not tradition. That’s his rocket.

These are examples of leaders who identify a key issue that’s stifling progress – and unleash a rocket to wake everyone up. I wish more leaders understood the power of a good rocket. I see too many who arrive into a troubled situation and meekly play the consensus game. They listen too keenly to the many voices that militate against change. Eventually, they too become captive to the past, accepting that nothing except the most timid, incremental initiatives can be attempted.

Transformations are not made of timidity.

If you are a political leader in much of Africa, you had better fire a very loud (and potent) rocket against corruption. No fancy development initiative will lead anywhere unless you tame, once and for all, your colleagues’ penchant for self-enrichment from the public purse.

If you run a bank today, you had better have a rocket ready about innovation. Your current business model does not have long to go, and your team has much wrenching change to navigate in the coming months and years.

Heck, if you are in a leadership position pretty much anywhere in Africa in an organization doing pretty much anything, you had better have a rocket ready about the youth population. Africa, as I will never tire of repeating, has the world’s youngest people. Its under-18 population will swell by two-thirds to reach almost a billion by 2050. If you do not have a plan for serving this market, you will have no market. Wake your people up.

A good leader fixates on the essential problem, and then does something rousing and electrifying to focus everyone’s attention on the problem – and its solution. That’s the leadership rocket. Here’s the point: if you don’t have a rocket, the market, economy or electorate is probably aiming one at you.

(Sunday Nation, 16 October 2016)

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