After he joined IBM, Louis Gerstner asked an executive for a detailed analysis of a major money-losing business there. Besides wanting the information, he wanted to test the exec.
Three days later, Gerstner asked how the work was going. “I’ll check with the team and get back to you,” promised the exec. At the end of the week, Gerstner heard the same response, again with a follow-up report. When that exchange took place a third time, Gerstner said, “Why don’t you just give me the name of the person doing the work, and from now on I’ll speak directly with him or her?”
What Gerstner discovered was that executives often preside over work instead of doing it. They organize work, then review it when it’s finished.
Gerstner, on the contrary, wanted people who worked, top to bottom.
“My kind of executives dig into the details, work the problems day to day, and lead by example, not title,” he writes in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? “They take personal ownership of and responsibility for the end result. They see themselves as drivers rather than as a box high on the organization chart.”
When Gerstner told the executive that he expected him to be a direct, active participant in the day-to-day work, the guy was stunned. He was only doing what he’d been trained to do, after all. The experiment stunned Gerstner, too.
“I had an enormous team of executives,” he writes. “I would need to develop a cadre of leaders.”
— Adapted from “Leader vs. Executive,” Louis Gerstner Jr., Across the Board.