Leadership and Management Literacy


Dr. Noel Tichy is a professor of management and organization at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He has been the director of Global Business Partnership and for over a decade he ran the Global Leadership Program which is a 36-company consortium of Japanese, European, and North American companies who partnered to develop senior executives and conduct action research on globalization in China, India, Russia and Brazil.

Dr. Tichy is the author of Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win by Trusting Their People, which he co-authored with Chris DeRose.

Dr. Tichy has long been regarded as a staple of management literacy, and noted by his rating of being one of the Top 10 Management Gurus by Business Week and Business 2.0. He has served on editorial boards of the Academy of Management Review, Organizational Dynamics, The Journal of Business Research, The Journal of Business Strategy, and was the founding Editor and Chief of Human Resource Management.

He consults widely with private and public sectors and he is a senior partner in Action Learning Associates. His clients have included Best Buy, GE, Pepsi, Cocoa Cola, GM, Nokia, 3M, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You know we can go on more with your background, but I think for our listeners, they want to hear from you and so do we. One of the questions we like to ask folks is who have been some of your greatest leaders and greatest influences? You have been in the field for so long and have contributed so much, who have been some of your key folks?

Dr. Noel Tichy: Well, it goes back to the early 1970’s; I was a professor at the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University. I got very involved with the Mr. Luther King Health Center in the South Bronx, the neighborhood health center. As a matter of fact, the first book I did was on my experience there. I was profoundly influenced by the engagement of the local community in running this neighborhood health center. It was one of 144 in the country and it was the model for the country. All of the 500 staff, was from the neighborhood. Delores – 1967; African American on welfare, 8 kids, but in 1972 she had finished her Masters in Public Health from the University of Michigan and was CEO of the Martin Luther King Health Center. I learned about the latent capability of leadership in people that we normally would write-off as not part of the leadership cadre – huge impact.

Similar experience; I moved to Hazard Kentucky and ran a rural health clinic for a year in Hazard Kentucky. Again, all of the staff came from the area, when given the opportunity, and when developed, they became outstanding leaders.

Then I would say the other shaping experience was running General Electric’s Crotonville for two years for Jack Welch and having the opportunity to try and develop 10,000 GE Leaders a year. One other influence, the most impactful academic influence was James MacGregor Burns’s book, Leadership, which is a Pulitzer Prize winning book. He is a political historian, and political scientist. It has nothing to do with business; it had to do with transactional versus transformational leaders. Basically, trained for me the notion that transactional leaders are bureaucrats, transformational leaders fundamentally alter what they have lead, never to go back; Martin Luther and the reformation, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I used that to write a book in the early 80’s called The Transformational Leader. Those were probably the big events that impacted how I think about leadership.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now Noah, I think it’s important for our audience to know that you have co-authored so many of what we would call the salient books on leadership, starting with every business, as a growth business with Ram Charan, you created Crotonville, and you co-authored Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will, How Jack Welch is making GE the World’s most competitive company. In the last few years, you have done a stellar job of bringing to light the idea of judgment which is one of the predecessors of being ethical, and having unyielding integrity, which is another one of your books, The Ethical Challenge: How to Lead with Unyielding Integrity.

Now, here we are with this book, and it is Judgment on the Front Line, How Smart Companies Win by Trusting Their People, with Chris DeRose, who is just a fabulous person. Can you tell us a little bit about the “turtle tank” and how it relates to front line employees?

Dr. Noel Tichy:  Yes, I certainly can. I just want to correct one thing. I was not there at the founding of Crotonville. It was 1956 that Crotonville opened. I was there to transform it with Jack Welch in the 80’s.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That’s fine, but I think most people would associate the success of Crotonville under your tutelage, how’s that?

Dr. Noel Tichy: That’s more than generous. Let’s talk about turtle firms, and the “turtle tank”. That was actually a wonderful concept that Chris DeRose came up with. It came out of a discussion he had with a store manager. The store manager said, well you know the problem is the turtle farm. Chris shook his head that he had no idea what he meant. Then the manager explained it: If you put a turtle in a small tank, even though it has the potential to grow much bigger than the tank, its growth will be stunted. That is the same thing that happens with people on the front line. If you set low expectations, don’t give them the opportunity to grow, they will become stunted and it’s your fault as the leader. That’s the “turtle tank.”

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: How simple, but how poetic.

We were just talking about the “turtle tank”, and I would assume, Noel, that we are going to move from the “turtle tank” to something a little bit more progressive in terms of a leaders potential, so let’s go from “turtles” to “hippos.” What is the hippo and why is staying with the theme “the elephant in the room?”

Dr. Noel Tichy: Well, again out doing our field work, we not only learned about the “turtle tank” we learned about “hippos.” “Hippo” is a term coined at Amazon which stands for the “highest paid person’s opinion.” What we discovered at Amazon, is the last thing you wanted to be called is a “hippo” because most of the innovation comes from the front lines. So “hippos” are to be either changed in their behavior or moved out of the organization. It’s all about turning the pyramid on its head.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: So you don’t really want to be caught in a “turtle tank” and you don’t really want to be a “hippo.” So as organizations work forward, being front line focused, you talk about how the objectives must start at the top. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Noel Tichy: Yes. One of the things we want to make clear in what we have seen in the field, and what we write about in the book, it’s not about anarchy at the front lines. The top of the organization, be those at Amazon for example, have a very important responsibility to set the framework for unleashing talent at the bottom. It starts with what we call a teachable point of view. What are the ideas, products, distribution channels, customers segments, that are part of Amazon for making money, or Google, or whatever the company?

Then, what are the values, another part of your teachable point of view is: to be on this team, what is our value set around openness, around trust, around those things that people have to believe in order to support the ideas. Then the third element of the teachable point of view is emotional energy. How do we motivate and energize people using rewards, opportunities to grow, opportunities to learn, to contribute? The final part of a teachable point of view, which does come last is, what we call edge or judgment. Once you have got good ideas, good values, good emotional energy, you now have earned the right to make yes/no decisions. Who is on the team, off the team, to invest in this or to not invest in it?

It is the responsibility of the senior leadership to set that framework, but then use that framework, and this is the paradoxical part, top – down, then to go bottom – up, top – down, both ways. Once you have that, then the people on the front line at Amazon, or at Google, within that framework can come up with innovations that are then driven from the bottom because that is where the interface with the customers is. They know more about the customers and about what is going on at that interface than the CEO does.

Listen to the complete interview with Dr. Noel Tichy above.


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