CEOs must be broad in their approach: manage every functional area, integrate multifunctional decisions, and cover the waterfront. Even if done reasonably well, it’s insufficient. Relying on someone else’s (your management team) word isn’t good enough. To significantly amplify your impact in many ways, don’t just be horizontal; add a vertical dimension and: Go Deep.
On one or a few chosen pending decisions, after you have received the usual inputs and recommendations on that pending decision in the traditional way, and utilizing whatever excuse you want, declare to the organization that you will directly discuss it with all the involved individuals. Then interact with mid-line managers, administrators, production staff, operators, programmers, customers and sales individuals yourself. Mark Hurd, recently appointed CEO of HP, also demonstrated Going Deep in his own way by working the floor, in disguise, at some of the Best Buy retail locations which were principal HP product sellers.
No technique has greater potential for a profound impact. Going Deep obviously increases your short-term workload but in the end you’ll be smarter, your organization will become more effective, and as a result your job will get easier. The permanent benefits from this one-time (or a couple times) extra work are extraordinary:
• Achieving the best decision you can make on this particular subject
• Directly informing everyone in the line how important the execution on this decision is and exactly what you expect
• Tightening up your management team’s information gathering and recommendation processes, as they don’t know when you’ll Go Deep again
• Exposing middle management’s biases and sloppiness
• Changing the culture of the organization to stress everyone’s importance
• Establishing your credentials as a no-nonsense, involved, people’s leader
You don’t necessarily need to convey an attitude of distrust of your managers. Just inform them that it’s your style, that you’ve done this in the past to learn about the organization, and that you’ll do this on occasion going forward. Regardless of your level of trust in individual managers, it’s your fiduciary and career-supporting responsibility to verify assumptions and information processes. If decisions go badly because you relied on a manager’s biases and errors, there’s no place to hide. They’ll abandon ship the second the seas get rough and leave you with the titanic disaster.
Following is an excellent example of Going Deep.
With the Phosphorous Chemicals Company of FMC Corporation, I was faced with a situation that was perfect for Going Deep. The two prior general manager of this business, currently the Chairman and CEO of the Corporation, had locked into building a major expansion (adding a “fifth furnace” somewhat akin to a steel mill) of the Phosphorus Chemical facility, or not; a binary choice. Procter and Gamble was the Corporation’s largest customer and also the largest customer of this company for phosphorous based products. The FMC facility was out of capacity and our customer had been demanding an expansion for several years, threatening to reformulate all their detergent products to a new formulation eliminating our product, essentially shutting down this large and highly profitable business. But the environmental and capital issues relating to adding a “fifth furnace” were beyond daunting; the environmental affects alone were virtually impossible to deal with. So I inherited this no-win situation: “We can’t afford to build another furnace but we can’t afford not to”. All the direct reports took positions for or against. There was no middle ground and there was no clear solution. Not much help there!
I had no idea how to solve this so decided to travel to the Idaho facility and, although I didn’t have a label for it at the time, Go Deep. I had no idea which option to choose, or even how to make the decision. The only clear thing was that the information presented to me thus far wasn’t good enough. To improve my chances of receiving unbiased input, I left the management team at home.
Upon my arrival, the plant manager started his campaign. He supported the furnace expansion and delivered supportive propaganda at every turn. I asked to walk through the facility and meet the engineering and operating personnel unescorted. “You shouldn’t waste your time accompanying me,” I said. “My visits will go on for several days while I become familiar with the plant, the people, and the process of making phosphorous.” He was happy; he got to focus on his daily work rather than babysitting this wet-behind-the-ears CEO. So I got my shot at honest reactions from every level.
I asked everyone I met how to solve the problem. The typical response was, “It’s a tough problem.” Yes, as was evidenced by my presence. The first clue came when an engineer talked about problems the conveyor system which hauled the phosphorous-laden shale to the furnace.
Engineer: “If we simply changed the DC voltage on the drive motors, we could increase the feed into the furnaces.”
Engineer: “Well, then we might be able to slightly increase phosphorous output in the existing furnaces. I’ve mentioned it before but I haven’t been able to get anyone’s interest!”
All subsequent conversations with engineering and operating personnel were steered toward incremental improvements. What other ideas might expand capacity on the existing four-furnace operation? Eventually six individual projects were proposed. Together they would increase capacity by 15% for an investment of around $5M cash and one year of time, and minimal environmental impact.
Compared this to the 25% increase from a “fifth furnace” that required $50M and 2½ years and daunting environmental problems. The implementation was smooth as the local engineers and operators felt totally a part of the process. After being implemented, the changes allowed significant revenue and profit growth as well as satisfying P&G.
The results were incredibly important to Phosphorous Chemicals and its long-term success. Why hadn’t this project already been considered? If these incremental opportunities were available, didn’t everyone know about it? The answer was simply that the corporate chairman and CEO, and the prior subsidiary president, had never asked. They all assumed they knew the answer.
By Going Deep within the organization and interviewing individuals—salespeople and machine operators, accounts receivable folks and design engineers—you’ll acquire a hands-on, personal view. Your decision will be based on present-time reality rather than mythology. Start with Industry In-experience (even if you have to fake it), Go Deep, and end with effective, smart decisions.