Want to Lead a Business Revolution? Study the Real Thing

Last Updated Feb 1, 2011 12:30 PM EST

The idea of "business revolutionaries" has always struck me a little odd. Maoists, anarchists, Bolshevists, sure, but managers? Men in gray flannel suits, striped ties, and black Che Guevara berets? Yet a search among Amazon's book listings yields 659 hits for "leadership revolution," 1,110 for "management revolution," and 2,856 for "business revolution." Some are false positives, like The T-Shirt Revolution: Building Your Business Using a Digital Apparel Printer; but a surprising number, not all of them by Tom Peters, truly promise revolution, if not at gunpoint, at least at PowerPoint. (One promises an "execution revolution," but alas has no guillotine on the cover.)

Though the rhetoric's false, you can find some truly smart ideas by taking it literally. Real revolutionaries know that you can't just topple the old regime; you have to prevent its coming back. Noel Tichy, the University of Michigan leadership expert, worked closely with Jack Welch early in his tenure as the CEO of General Electric. Welch immediately put his stamp on three GE functions: communications, executive education (Tichy ran GE's leadership development center, now named for Welch), and the corporate audit staff. As Tichy told me, "All good revolutionaries know that you can't win unless you seize control of the broadcasting stations, the schools, and the police."

So what's that mean?

  • Capture the media. When you're trying to make big changes, propaganda must be ceaseless and ubiquitous. The more deeply held the old beliefs are, the more relentless the Newspeak must be. Carly Fiorina come into HP determined to shake up a culture she thought had grown slow-moving. Within months, the new CEO promulgated a set of "Rules of the Garage" intended to return HP to its entrepreneurial roots. (Among the rules' tenets: "Believe you can change the world ... work quickly ... no politics ... radical ideas are not bad ideas.") More than that, with start-up speed, she wiped away any mention of the company's famous "HP Way." Never mind that the HP Way was the work of the real entrepreneurs and that before HP Fiorina had worked only for AT&T and Lucent, where the only garages were for the company cars. The ability to pull off Orwellian slight of hand is precisely what a revolutionary needs, and why he or she must seize control of the corporate media.
  • Take over the schools. Tichy and Welch shut down one of GE's best and most popular courses, on marketing, to send a shocking "no-business-as-usual" message to GE's execs: All the marketing moxie in the world won't save us if we don't fix the manufacturing guts of this company and speed up its elephantine ways. Management training wasn't a nice-to-have for Welch; it was central to his revolutionary program. He worked unusually closely with Tichy and his successors--Jim Baughman, Steve Kerr, and others--and made a point of conducting a class with each cohort that came to GE's campus, which has since been named for him.
  • Get the police on your side. As for the cops, well, think of it this way. If you're going to going to commit fraud, the first thing to do is corrupt the cops (see Enron) or neuter them. (At Tyco, the three prudential functions--finance, HR, and legal--were balkanized, reporting to scores of subsidiary CEOS. In its heyday--er, nadir--Tyco had 2,154 separate balance sheets, making it effectively unauditable.) If that's true, the flip side is, too: You won't get what positive change if you don't make sure those same weapons are in your hands, and no one else's. Over many years, Harvard Business School Professor William Sahlman has documented the power of incentives to affect behavior--indeed, in his (debatable) opinion, the relative powerlessness of anything else compared to incentives. Reward is one goad. Punishment is another.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that "soft power" has no role in making change happen. Indeed, in the long run, you can't win a revolution without bringing the formal and informal organization along together--a topic I'll come back to in another post. But real revolutions are serious stuff with, you know, blood in the streets. If you just talk it, it won't happen.

And if business revolution seems too hard, you can always get into the revolution business instead. Those Che Guevara berets? $29.95 at The Che Store, the place to find authentic, officially licensed products "for all your revolutionary needs."

Illustration courtesy flickr user, chris.corwin