Tag archive for "GM"

by Bill, Leadership

IT’S LEADERSHIP, STUPID… Five Things that will Make a Difference in our Current National Struggle

No Comments 20 August 2011

In 1998, Northwest Airlines endured a strike by its pilots, who were members of the Airline Pilots Association. One day while transiting the Memphis airport, I asked one of the picketing pilots what the strike was all about. After ascertaining that I was not a reporter, he gave me his view on the matter.

He told me that nearly 3 decades prior, he had been shot at on a daily basis while flying F-4 Phantom jets off a carrier deck in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Viet Nam war. It was a job that provided him a salary of about $20,000, and personal living space aboard the carrier of fewer than 50 square feet.  He then told me that while his current job paid him about 10 times as much, affording him a 6,000 square foot home, and no bullet holes in his aircraft, the old job was better, much better than his current gig. Responding to my rather obvious question as to why, he said, “Well, Mr. consultant, I know you guys like things in short, 3 word bursts, so I’ll give you one… It’s leadership, stupid!” He went on to define, with all the grace and precision of a laser-guided smart bomb, the differences between his former and then current leadership groups.

If, as a nation, we’ve ever been in a “It’s Leadership, Stupid” moment, it is now. As profiled in our new book, Rebooting Leadership, Harvard professor, Bill George has very aptly noted that the near collapse of our financial system (and ongoing debacles) had less to do with subprime mortgages than with subprime leadership. Truer words were never spoken.

In that vein, I will submit that rather than wait for someone in elected office to do the job, each of us should bear just a little more perhaps than our rightful share of responsibility, and take steps individually and collectively to pull our national automobile out of the ditch, onto the road, and set it in motion in the right (make that correct) direction.

Following are five leadership precepts that we would do well to heed at the moment:

Leaders are Optimists

Operating on the well-proven premise that you get what you expect to get, leaders are optimists. They wreak optimism. They realize that for the same reason that crowds associated with parades almost always out-number those at funerals, people will not follow a pessimist for long.

As a nation, we need to get our heads out of… the sand (I’m so tempted to say something much more graphic), and realize that America’s future is as bright today as it ever was. We just need to get our mojo back. We may not have the market cornered on brains and good ideas, but we have more than our fair share. We have abundant (yes, abundant) natural resources, including hydrocarbons that burn. Though failed by individuals at times, we have a system of government that works for the most part, and let’s be reminded that it’s a damned sight better than all the others. Most of all, we have our liberty. So, step #1 to regaining our altitude is to fix our attitude, each of us. The “good ‘ole days” weren’t all that great, and today is not as terrible as the folks on the cable “news” outlets would have us believe. And yes, I lost a bunch of money in the market this month, too.

Leaders Display Courage

Courage is defined neither by the absence of fear, nor an overabundance of brass (as in cojones). Rather, courage is at once a matter of being willing to stand tall in the face of both physical and moral pressure or threat, to be willing to do what is right regardless of possible pain, discomfort, economic loss, or unpopularity. You are afraid, but you proceed anyhow.

So, too, is courage a matter of being willing to act in the face of uncertainty. If I hear one more business leader whine that the uncertainty of tomorrow is keeping them from taking steps today to grow their business, I’m going to puke on their wingtip loafers. As Warren Buffett put it recently, “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” There is always the risk that the world will end tomorrow, too, but we don’t hold our breath just in case it does.

Each of us needs to summon that moment from our youth, or some other time in our lives, when we stared down a mean looking dog and continued walking down the street. Just as a congressman (or woman) with an ounce of courage would say, “no” as readily to Grover Norquist as they would the Teamster’s Union, each of us must find it in ourselves to call bullies or haters by their rightful names, and evict those who like to yell, “fire” from crowded theaters. Why not insist that facts, rather than partisan objectives and shrill rhetoric rule the day for a while?

Leaders Build Commitment

The process of harnessing the attention and effort of others begins deep within the leader themselves. We must be masters of our own time, priorities, and attention if we’re asking others to follow us. We must have, and be able to credibly articulate an abiding sense of purpose, direction, and priority.

In his book, Beating the Street, uber-successful investor, Peter Lynch maintained that people ought not invest in something unless they could explain it with a crayon. The same holds true for those of us who would lead others. If we can’t explain with that same blunt instrument what we’re about and where we’re going, then we can’t explain it well enough for today’s rightfully cynical audience, and people won’t buy it. Mr. President, take note.

We must ask and expect that our elected representatives focus like a laser on things that really matter, and that are in our strategic national interest. There will always be 2nd and 3rd tier issues that can be dealt with as time permits, but at this point we have neither the time nor other resource to deal with them. If, as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has suggested, we should get their attention by withholding campaign contributions until they figure this out, so be it.

Leaders Subordinate Self Interest

If we, as leaders, are to have any hope of gaining the commitment of followers in any endeavor, we must elevate the legitimate interests of the organization and those we lead above our own selfish wants and ambitions. We don’t have to take a vow of poverty or anything, just remain very clear about whom we are there to serve.

Indeed, one of the chief causes of the aforementioned pilot strike at Northwest Airlines was that senior, C-level officers had, at the same time that they were forcing pay cuts on company employees, like hogs at the trough, taken overt, outrageous steps to enrich themselves.

Similarly, the most glaring leadership failure of the recent debt ceiling fiasco was the nearly unanimous disregard for the financial security and reputation of an entire nation, in pursuit of narrow, partisan, and in some cases, personal interests. Many of our so-called “leaders” (more accurately, “politicians”) seemed only too willing to drag Americans (indeed the world) through weeks of clumsy, bad faith negotiations with the attendant anxiety and uncertainty, willing to allow the nation to go into default, but by golly, they weren’t going to abandon their “ideals” or do anything that might risk their political standing. In choosing such a path, many may have created their own term limits (so maybe something good will come from it, after all). Nonetheless, I’ve seen 3 year-olds behave in less self-serving ways than our elected officials have of late.

Leaders are Grown-Ups With High Standards

Deep down, we all understand that high standards are a necessary precursor to winning, and let’s face it, none of us get up in the morning saying, “I wanna go lose today. I want to hang out with mediocre people and do some really crummy work for a third rate company, or live in a AA+ nation.”

We must accept the fact that America will be exceptional only so long as we, each of us, maintains an adult perspective and is willing to live up to high standards. Whenever high standards and lofty expectations get divorced from one another, the outcome is akin to what happened at Chrysler and GM and Lehman Brothers.

Not everybody deserves an “A’, re-appointment, or re-election. Sometimes, “no” really does mean no. We can start by explaining that to our kids, together with the fact that life is not a TV reality game where the losers are voted off the island, but get to come back at season’s end.

I, for one, firmly believe that America’s glass is indeed half full and that our best days really are ahead of us. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to be here. Let’s get going.


A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows

by Bill, Leadership, Management, Motivation

Discretionary Effort: Why Wisconsin’s Governor (and Yours) May be Playing a Losing Game

No Comments 27 February 2011

Having already wrung needed and significant concessions from them, the newly elected Governor of Wisconsin has been making a rather poorly disguised effort to nullify the collective bargaining agreements and rights of various groups of state workers, principally teachers. As with nearly every other issue of import these days, the whole world is suddenly watching, including like-minded governors in several other states who are licking their chops at the prospect of following the lead penguin into the drink. Whoa… Full Flaps, Brakes, Stop!

In the interest of full disclosure, I am no fan of labor unions. Indeed, a significant portion of my professional effort over the course of 3 decades has focused on helping organizations obviate unions by maintaining a positive employee relations culture, a culture in which both the individual and the organization can do their best work and gain the most from it.

That said, I respect every worker’s right to make a choice as to whether or not they are willing to enter into a direct, cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship with their management. That choice is most often based on whether or not management has earned the benefit of the doubt. If the answer is yes, workers feel no need to reach out and seek (let alone pay for) the protection of organized labor. Are you with me so far? Alright, hang on.

Demonstrations notwithstanding, I believe there is an even chance that Governor Scott Walker will pull off some kind of flash bang, middle of the night vote and get his way, even if it means reinventing the law right before our eyes. Even if that comes to pass, while winning the hand, he will lose the game. Correction, the people of Wisconsin will lose. How? Because there will still be a need for thousands of teachers, and every one of them will STILL make a quiet daily decision as to whether they want to give their full measure of effort that day, or mail it in. Given the backdrop, which choice do you think they will make?

For the last twelve years we have worked almost entirely within the field of Discretionary Effort, studying, writing, speaking, and teaching leaders about that extra layer of effort that every one of us can give to a situation if, but only if we want to. Eerily consistent with similar work by Towers Watson and Gallup, our own engagement surveys suggest that barely 50% of workers are, by their own admission doing their very best work, and that most of us routinely expend no more than 60 to 70% of our maximum effort in the workspace. In other words, a lot of unspent capacity goes home with us at day’s end.

So, if just half of the 50,000 or so teachers in a state, any state choose to ratchet the ‘ole effort meter back another 10-20%, what is that going to cost to compensate for the lost productivity? Perhaps more importantly, what will it do to the level of educational performance in the state? If you’re getting a mental image of a post office being superimposed over your local school district, you’re getting the picture.

Since the publication of our first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk in 1998, we have maintained that giving workers (be they on an assembly line at GM, or a school in Racine) benefits they haven’t earned, the market doesn’t require, and you can’t afford is the antithesis of good employee relations, because some day you have to take all that stuff back. As the folks at GM did, and now a lot of teachers and other municipal workers face that same music, the last thing in the world we, through our elected representatives ought to be doing is rubbing their faces in it, just because we can. It’s not good business or good politics, and it’s certainly not good employee relations. Motivated people move faster.

As always, your thoughts and ideas are welcome


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their  website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows

by Bill, Think About It...

Last Rites For GM?

No Comments 30 March 2009

This morning, President Obama did what GM’s board should have done years ago by effectively administering last rites to the ailing automaker, at least in its current incarnation.

The move brought howls from the likes of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (r-TN) and a host of others about the federal government’s meddling in private business.

With all due respect, one thing that the good senator seems to have overlooked is the fact that once a company dines at the public trough to the tune of several billion dollars, it’s no longer a private business, and you’re no longer captain of your own ship. That’s just the way it works. He who has the gold makes the rules. TARP-infused banks, take note.

I have two hopes with respect to this situation:

1. Before the plank that GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner was forced to walk is put away, I hope that a majority of the company’s board, the UAW “leadership”, and the elected federal representatives who have aided and abetted this train wreck get a chance to try it out. In fairness, they’ve had more to do with the failure of GM than Mr. Wagoner has, so as long as we’re having an exorcism, let’s finish the job.

2. In view of the fact that our nation’s security and economic vitality depend to a great extent on having a modern, ultra-competitive manufacturing base, I genuinely hope that a radically new GM is allowed (encouraged) to emerge, one that is unencumbered by old-school management thinking, union interference, an entrenched entitlement mindset, and an outsized health care burden.

A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website at www.contentedcows.com

by Bill, Management

Employee Engagement (and Business Outcomes) Depend on Tough Love

No Comments 22 February 2009

In today’s NY Times, Tom Friedman wrote a compelling piece
Start Up the Risk-Takers” in which he advocates that, “when it comes to helping companies, precious public money should focus on start-ups, not bailouts.” (e.g., GM, Chrysler). As is often the case, Mr. Friedman is on point, both about the general target for the stimulus money, and his recommendation that Chrysler and GM be allowed to go through bankruptcy rather than continue on life support infinitum at public expense.

In our 1987 book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk, we were among the first to suggest that GM’s troubles had less to do with strategy and talent than with effort, specifically discretionary effort. “The problems at GM had far more to do with the attitudes and commitment level of its workforce (demoralized by an inattentive and uncaring management) than with engineering, design, marketing, finance, or manufacturing processes. Think about it: GM enjoyed a huge brand name advantage, employed some of the best designers and marketing minds on the planet, had spent enough of their capital reserves on technological improvement to have bought Toyota outright, and yet they were still making crummy cars!” Now, twelve years later, as GM and Chrysler are back at the welfare window again, with hat in hand, I really wish that we had been proven wrong in that assessment. But there’s a lesson here:

Contrary to the opinions of some, demonstrating that you care about your workforce… A. Is important, especially today. Minds that are frozen by fear or otherwise self-absorbed don’t work very fast, generate many ideas, or respond to customers very well.

B. Does not involve lavishing people with money and expensive benefits which they haven’t earned, the market doesn’t require, and you can’t afford. Though a lot has changed about “the deal” in the workplace in the last 20 years, when it comes to the basics of motivation, nobody has moved the cheese. To wit, among a short list of other important factors (e.g., trust), people are still looking for the opportunity to do meaningful work, and the freedom to pursue it. They want to be in the game, not on the bench. Witness the kids at Cirque du Soleil who leave it all in the arena every night. If GM had 100,000 of those folks on the payroll, Toyota would be nothing but a speed bump in a Detroit parking lot.

A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website at www.contentedcows.com


Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

OUR PREMISE: Having a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.


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