Percy Barnevik was Europe's exemplar businessman for much of the '80s and '90s. He woke up a sleepy ABB Asea Brown Boveri big time—and made about as many notable management inventions as Jack Welch along the way. I sang his praises at length in my 1992 book, Liberation Management. In particular, Barnevik's ABB was peerless when it came to internationalization and managing very far-flung ventures. Along the way, as I recall, he surprised many of us by asserting that among his cast of hundreds of thousands, with managers numbering in the tens of thousands, he really only needed about 125 true internationalists! The reality: Most of his units, and there were hundreds, served rather circumscribed markets—and the leaders' local knowledge was far more important than high marks on a "world news of the week" quiz.
So given the above, which is a reasonable description of reality as I see it, and big company reality at that, what is one to make of this headline from a recent (27 Oct) Financial Times, in a special report on executive education: "Dean Predicts Global Focus Will Dominate"? (The dean in question is Dean Dezsö Horváth, of the Schulich school of management at York University in Canada.)
I have little doubt that numerous grads of Schulich will have international careers—as will their counterparts from Wharton and Duke and Harvard. But the fact is that most Schulichers, unless I miss my bet by a mile, will mostly spend their time in firms in Canada (or the U.S.), and most of those firms' revenues will mostly come from Canada, or at most North America.
Moreover, unless the statistics lie, many, if not most, will work in privately held firms, a long way from the character or charter of an ABB or GE. And then there are the hundreds of business schools that are not grand enough to make anybody's Top 75 list—but who really help their students become better middle managers at the local utility or hospital or the like.
And ... then come the "other" 90% or 95% of American or Canadian or Italian or Polish managers, sans MBA, who work in small, or smallish, companies. Not to mention the ever so parochial millionaires next door—"lived in same town all their adult life, don't look like millionaires, don't dress like millionaires, don't eat like millionaires, don't act like millionaires," mostly engaged in "businesses that could be classified as 'dull-normal,' such as welding contractors, auctioneers, scrap-metal dealers, lessors of portable toilets, dry cleaners, re-builders of diesel engines, paving contractors ..." (from The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas Stanley & William Danko).
Not only is the world pretty damned curved, if not spherical, but the fact is that making it in giant markets at home, let alone beyond one's borders, and even if you are a giant, is damn tough—and often, or mostly, a bad strategy. The authors Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn penned an article for the Harvard Business Review with the awkward but descriptive title, "All Strategy Is Local: True competitive advantages are harder to find and maintain than people realize. The odds are best in tightly drawn markets, not big, sprawling ones." Amen—and I note that their subjects were big companies.
What's my point, if any?
***First, to continue my relentless rant against "media bias," a favorite topic this political season, and accompanying and equally pronounced "business guru bias." We are soooooooo caught up in big-public-international businesses, which are, in fact, a distinct minority of employment sites; and even, per Barnevik, the biggies globalies' managers mainly work in distinctly local contexts. (Remember, 125 out of a couple of hundred thousand were through and through globalists; the rest were busy doin' the damn work.) I am determined to keep yelling, re the likes of the Financial Times headline, and in fact Tom Friedman's flat-world treatise: "BUT THIS HAS NOTHING, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, TO DO WITH 95% OF EVEN THE OECD WORLD, LET ALONE THE WORLD AS A WHOLE."
***Second, going back to my roots, to shout: "NINETY-FIVE PERCENT OF EXCELLENCE IS LOCAL!" And local Excellence is more about mastering MBWA writ large than starring at cross-cultural studies.
***Third, to proclaim, or vehemently suggest, that rather than obsessively pursue the answer to global mysteries, we might better spend our leader-ly time improving the relationships with the [mostly local] customers and vendors and employees and communities which we currently serve.
What follows, in the spirit of the above, is very much "off the top of my head, realism be damned." It is my ten-minutes-to-write partial curriculum for my imagined very non-global business school, which focuses on "real-world basics" of "getting things done":
***Managing people I, II, III, IV
***Creating and managing systems with high impact
***Leadership I, II
***Execution I, II, III
***Creating a "Try it now" environment
***Maximizing ROIR [Return On Investment in Relationships]
***Sales I, II, III, IV
***Service basics I, II
***Creating incredible customer experiences
***Accounting I, II
***Accountability I, II
***Personal calendar mastery
***MBWA I, II
***Nurturing and harvesting curiosity
***Giving great presentations I, II
***Active listening I, II
***Excellence as aspiration, Excellence everywhere
***Recruiting top talent for 100% of all available jobs
***Recruiting for smile, enthusiasm, energy
***Nurturing top talent
***Helping people (employees, customers, vendors, communities) grow and realize their dreams
***The promotion decision
***Women as preeminent leaders
***Building friends through firings
***The art of ferreting out and loving weirdos
***Creating an environment of respect and decency
***The art and science of influencing others I, II
***Accountability I, II
***The preeminent role of emotion in everything
***Saying "thank you" I, II
***Giving good phone
***Creating and nurturing lasting alliances
***Creating or changing a unit's "culture"
***Bringing spirit to the workplace
***Becoming the gemstone of the community
***Mastering the Internet I, II
***Appreciating and playing with new technologies
***Marketing to women I, II
***Marketing to boomers-geezers I, II
***Design-mindedness as a "cultural" attribute
***Rapid prototyping of everything, and the Art of Serious Play
***Increasing the unit's metabolic rate
***Diversity power everywhere
***The power of universal transparency
[For your amusement, you'll find a PowerPoint of my GTD-MBA—Getting Things Done MBA—attached.]