It’s winter a few years back. I’m a copywriter sitting in the office of a creative director the ad agency I worked at had hired a few months earlier. He’s frustrated. No, make that livid. Nobody works as hard as he thinks they should. The ideas he’s seeing are “as fresh as a hooker at 4 a.m.” (He did have a way of making a point.) I think that all the qualities agency management thought essential for their cd — including high-octane chutzpah and a whip-cracking brand of leadership — are proving useful only in pissing people off.
I also think, OK, cool, he’s fishing for some insight. So I offer some: “Maybe we all just have to get used to each other.” God, how naive. His nostrils flare dragon wide and he stares at me like I’ve insulted his mother and says, “No, they just have to get used to me and start working the way I want them to work.”
Get used to him? Work like him? Worship him? Kiss the hem of his Dockers? I walk out of his office slack-jawed and diminished and think, boy, we are screwed.
This scene came back to me recently — suddenly, chillingly like an LSD flashback, not that I have reason to think I’ll, er, uh, ever have one — as I read the business section of the Sunday New York Times. In that one issue, there were three(!) articles that each in its own way talked about the importance of working together.
Working together? Really? A topic so basic, so first grade rates precious column inches in the world’s most prestigious news vehicle? But it was being touted by not one but three of the industry’s most notable titans as if, I thought, working together were some ingenious new management concept.
On one page, there was Alan Mulally, CEO of the phoenix-like Ford Motor Company, talking about his new strategy: one Ford, one team, one plan, one goal. If I read correctly between the lines, it appeared to be a full-tilt effort not merely to pay lip service to the idea of working as a team. Maybe we should call his strategy “The Collective One.”
On another page, there was Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto — who believes strongly in teaching critical thinking to business students — turning the traditional MBA on its ear with his “heretical” jive about learning how to approach problems from many perspectives, combining various approaches to find innovative solutions and looking at problems from multiple points of view. If we made a movie about Martin, we might title it The Incredible Oneness of Being.
And on still another page, in the Corner Office column, was Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, saying that while his company celebrates individuality and wants true personalities to shine in the workplace, he is willing to hire and fire people based on their adherence to common values of the group.
I imagine management theorist Peter Drucker reading the same issue of the Times, chucking under his breath, jeez, it took ’em long enough to catch on. It was Drucker, of course, who wrote years ago that the days of bosses standing over the backs of factory workers are over and that workers must be given autonomy. They are not to be bossed but conducted like orchestras. So much for the autocratic style tagged to the likes of Martha Stewart and Donald Trump; admired and emulated by a few too many, including a certain creative director. Working together, collectively, as one, is not some ingenious new management concept. It’s old hat. But maybe the “how-to” booklet just got stuck on a shelf back during the heyday of the Me Generation. Maybe now it’s time to take it down, dust it off and actually put it into practice.
The argument I hear the aforementioned gentlemen making is this: The hell-bent determination to be the one who is right has had its day. Working as a team is more productive. The power of the well-functioning team has returned to prominence and is once again getting its due. And subsequent to that, a whip-cracking leadership style is horse-and-buggy gone.
And I hope there’s no cerebral earwax preventing me from hearing them right.
Because here’s what I believe with all my heart: The true life blood of an organization is a group of people who revel in each other’s individuality, as strongly as they do in their own. Who respect each other’s ideas and opinions. Who’ve learned how to work together. And even more, who’ve found a way to actually enjoy it.
Has the group hug found a legitimate, if metaphorical, place in American business? If I tracked down a certain creative director, would he now hug, instead of admonish, me?
In three titans with similar opinions on the same topic in the same section of the same newspaper on the same day, I am not sure if this qualifies as a movement, but something is going on here. And I think that something is a solid concept finally getting the recognition it deserves.
George Fuller is president of Cranial Garage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.