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How Western Union missed the boat

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

How to seize opportunities? The best we can do is make informed guesses and take our chances; the main obstacle being that poor leadership tends to perpetuate itself, eroding an organization’s capacity to act.

You’ve probably heard the truism that A players surround themselves with other A players, while B players pick B and even C players, dragging down once-great teams.

Western Union provides a striking example. Founded in 1851, it spread the use of the telegraph, becoming America’s first communications company. But its leaders were insular and resistant to change.

A young inventor named Alexander Graham Bell approached Western Union about the telephone, which it could use through its vast infrastructure of telegraph wires. Western Union, he said, could become a telegraph and telephone company.

Western Union declined, leaving that honor to American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), known as Ma Bell, and her many Baby Bells.

Then Western Union was offered radio. It passed on radio, too.

In the 1930s, Western Union took a look at television. Several of its suppliers had decided to produce TVs and TV production gear, but Western Union again declined.

In the 1970s, Western Union watched Motorola develop cell phone technology, which took off in the ’80s, commercialized by AT&T. Again, Western Union had the infrastructure to support these developments.

It even toyed with becoming a player on the Internet, possibly because its wire-and-microwave system could have carried digital packets. Again, Western Union didn’t budge.

Today, the company limps along, saddled with debt from various takeovers. Its only remaining business is transferring money. For 150 years, it never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

— Adapted from Common Purpose, Joel Kurtzman, Jossey-Bass.

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