Learning Some Lessons From Titans of Industry

The author of a book on business innovators explains what he thinks IT managers stand to gain from them

The titans of American industry—larger-than-life figures like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas J. Watson and George Eastman—share certain characteristics that made them the legends they became, says Richard S. Tedlow in this month's Harvard Business Review. Tedlow's article is based on his new book, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built (HarperCollins, 2001). While IT leaders today may not want to emulate the titans' more ruthless aspects, the best of their methods are still valid.

Even if you're not the titan type, you may find yourself working for, partnering with or competing against one—so there's a lot to be gained by knowing what makes them tick. Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka spoke with Tedlow about what IT managers can learn from these moguls.

Q: Not every IT manager can be—or even wants to be—a titan, but can we learn from these guys?

A:
Yes. Each of these guys stood for something. Each had a driving idea. Henry Ford wanted to put America on wheels. Tom Watson of IBM was convinced business was all about information. Each was extraordinarily focused.


Q: These titans not only had vision; you say they also had the courage to bet on their vision. Please elaborate.


A:
The key is the ability to turn the vision into reality by relentless pursuit of the goal, even when things go bad. A titan's belief in his own vision is so great that when things look bad, he feels it's just a temporary misunderstanding by the cosmos and that it will all turn out right if he just sticks to the vision.



Richard S. Tedlow
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Richard S. Tedlow
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Q: How does a titan shape his vision into a company mission and a consistent message for customers, employees and investors?

A:
"Intel inside." That's a consistent message that says, "We guarantee this will work." They branded an ingredient. Wal-Mart's "Always the low price. Always." That speaks to the world. Titans are able to encapsulate the value proposition in a phrase and keep repeating it.


Q: Do you have to be a CEO to act on that principle, or does that translate to midlevel managers?

A:
You need to have a message, stand for something, make it clear and repeat it. Then implement it. This is not limited to titans. It's for anyone who wants to get something done in this world.


Q: You tell a great tale about Sam Walton placing the good of the company above everything—including his own dignity.

A:
He did the hula on Wall Street because he made a bet [with his chief operating officer that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. couldn't achieve a pretax profit of 8% on sales]. And he did it on Wall Street, not in Bentonville, Ark. At the time, Wal-Mart didn't have much presence in the East, but if any investor walked out to see what was going on, they'd find out Wal-Mart was making a profit on sales that was incredible.



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This is the latest in a series of monthly discussions with authors of articles in the HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW on topics of interest to IT managers.




















Q: Another principle from these titans is to deliver more than you promise. How might an IT manager take a lesson from Henry Ford on this?

A:
Ford came up with the Model T, and it was better than anyone expected. Then he kept lowering the price, and he paid his workers twice the old manufacturing average at the time. He gave people more than they expected and got the best out of people. Any leader can take a lesson from that.


Q: There's a wonderful story about Bob Noyce's "staggering" self-confidence. Tell us about that.

A:
As a young man, he got a call from William Shockley, who had been on the team that invented the transistor at Bell Labs and was world-famous. He was founding a semiconductor firm [Intel] in Palo Alto, and he invited Noyce out to talk about it. Noyce got out there and bought a house before he had the job interview. That's self-confidence.


Q: How can an IT manager walk the line between the kind of self-confidence that leadership requires and hubris?

A:
It's a problem. That's what ruined the last half of Ford's career: He couldn't walk that line. The same with Carnegie. It's very difficult to keep your feet on the ground when you have more money than you can imagine.


Q: Did any of them succeed?

A:
Walton was very good at that because he was dealing with customers and minimum-wage workers every day. The more successful you become, the more vital it is to keep in touch with the rank and file. They see what's going on. By abstracting from them, you cripple your own ability to be effective. And that's true for any leader.


Q: You say the titans never looked back, yet postmortems are considered a crucial part of IT project management. Where do titans draw the line on retrospection?

A:
It's not that they don't learn from the past; they don't get stuck in it. Walton lost his first store in 1950 because he signed a lease he shouldn't have signed. As a result, he was very careful about leases. Everyone fails, but the titans don't let it get them down.


Q: As you point out, the titans' success often came at some cost to their integrity. Do good guys finish last in American business?

A:
They don't have to, but there is ruthlessness in business. That's why in IT, you have to develop your skills so you have the mobility to select the company you work for with great care. Choose your boss; don't just let the boss choose you. And if you're not treated with respect, get the hell out of there.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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