Richard Anderson’s Guide to Tactical Leadership

May 2, 2009

We spend a lot of time here defining and illustrating leadership – less on the very tangible application of it. One thing I liked about the Anderson interview is that he offers some tactical advice. As a public service, I will summarize it here:

1. Never lose your temper.

2. Thank employees and customers in writing. He suggests hand-written notes, writes half a dozen a day.

3. Use interviews to surface the intangibles like ability to adapt to change. I found this one less persuasive, at least his operational advice:

I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

The social scientists have revealed our relatively strong bias for people who are like us. For example, it would take superhuman discipline for me not to hire someone on the spot who told me that his ideal vacation was hiding in a dark, climate-controlled hotel room with no sounds of children or pets. If someone who’d be a good poolside companion for you is also the best person for the job, bonus. In my experience, it rarely works out that way. “Cultural fit” can be an insidious way to ensure homogeneity of thinking and action, an increasingly reliable path to mediocrity.

4. Just say no to powerpoint. Make people communicate with subjects, verbs and objects.

5. And, finally, my favorite advice, quoted in full. If nothing else, this man can run a meeting:

Q. How do you run meetings?

A. One, get the materials out ahead of time and make sure they are succinct and to the point. Second, start the meeting on time. Third, I tend to be a stoic going into the meeting. I want the debate. I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements. I don’t think it’s appropriate to use BlackBerrys in meetings. You might as well have the newspaper and open the newspaper up in the middle of the meeting. So let’s stay focused on what we’re doing. Let’s have a really good debate, but it can’t get uncollegial. If it gets uncollegial, we actually have a bell you can ring, in the conference room.

Q. Tell me more about this.

A. If you are in a really hard debate and somebody veers off the subject and goes after you in a way that isn’t fair, you get to ring the bell. It’s a violation of the rules of the road. So you ring the bell if something wasn’t a fair shot, and we all laugh.


Bring Me a Problem (Solution Optional)

April 29, 2009

In what is becoming a consistently provocative column for us, the NY Times recently featured Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson as part of its Saturday Corner Office series. Anderson came across as thoughtful, humble, and hopefully up for the task of saving that airline.  Buried deep in the article, however, was a brief statement that worried me.  It was his variation on the theme of “don’t bring me a problem without a solution,'” or in Anderson’s words:

…don’t bring a Rubik’s cube to the table, unless you have an idea on how you’re going to try to get an answer.

Like many other well-intentioned managers, Anderson is getting this one wrong. Finding problems can be a solo sport, but solving the ones that matter usually requires a team effort.  And if we limit the problems that get exposed to the organization to those the observer can handle alone, then we also seriously limit the organization’s opportunities to improve.

As soon as problems are seen as critical inputs to improvement — critical because they reveal the operational path to better performance — then improvement champions will realize that surfacing problems is among their most important jobs.  And they might end their insidiously damaging habit of requiring problems and solutions to be colocated.  Anderson will have a much better shot at saving Delta if he gets unlimited access to what’s going wrong.

I was interviewed about this topic by the Harvard Management Update – the text of that interview can be found here.