The Action Faction

Tom Peters

You’ve sweated blood on a 45-minute presentation for your division general manager. I’d wager he responds in one of two ways:

Scenario No.1: “That’s a really interesting analysis. The marketing research folks, especially Sally Another-Analysis, could give you a hand in fleshing it out. Oh, yeah, the cost thing just seems too low to me. Marty Nitpick, in finance, is a genius with stuff like that. I’ll tell him to expect your call.

“Why don’t you schedule an hour on my calendar, for another look, in a couple weeks.”

Scenario No.2 (before you’re halfway through your presentation): “Do what you have to do. Drop by in the next couple of days and tell me how much your next steps are gonna cost. We can swipe a few bucks from somewhere to cobble together a prototype, then get some quick market feedback. I’m certain you can drum up field support for this—we’ve got our share of crazies out there. This is a terrific opportunity for you.”

Boss No.1, Sam, invariably makes his goals—not by much, but he makes them. He’s smart as a whip and can ferret out a soft spot in your argument with laser-like precision. He’s generous to a fault with his time: He loves to debate intelligent proposals with bright young staffers. In fact, you could say you’re getting advanced MBA training from Sam.

Boss No.2, George, has had downs along with ups. But, in a 10-division organization, George has brought in the lion’s share of the parent firm’s breakthrough products. George is smart and engaged. But he simply can’t sit all the way through presentations. He likes committed, well-prepared people ready to go out on a limb to chase their dreams. He’ll give them lots of leeway (peers, like Sam, say far too much); but he expects 15-hour days—and results. He’ll put 28-year-olds in charge of big projects quick as a wink, if they’ve produced in the past. But if you’re on his “out” list, be careful: You’ll get a second chance if you’ve busted your gut, but two consecutive strikes and you’re in trouble.

Over the years, I’ve met numerous successful business leaders: turnaround maestros like Jack Welch (General Electric), Mike Walsh (Union Pacific Railroad and Tenneco) and Percy Barnevik (ABB Asea Brown Boveri), recently profiled in this space; and also hall-of-fame business creators such as Sam Walton (Wal-Mart), Bill McGowan (MCI) and Fred Smith (Federal Express) Though all have much in common, one quality stands out: a George-like (boss No.2) bias for action and an insistence that those around them do something, not just talk about it.

I’ve devoted my adult life to studying the implementation of corporate strategies. Literally millions of pages have been written on the topic. And, perhaps an academic down deep, I am put off by simplistic answers to very complicated questions such as “What makes for effective strategy implementation?” Yet I keep stumbling over bosses who are seemingly oblivious to hurdles, assume (for themselves and their associates) you can do damn near anything you have the will to do, as long as you don’t wait until tomorrow—for another analysis—before getting your toes wet.

(Incidentally, I’m not slamming Sally Another-Analysis in market research and Marty Nitpick in finance. They’re worth their weight in gold. It’s just that the George-like bosses assume you’re smart enough to seek out such folks on your own; whereas the Sam-like honchos use Another-Analysis and Nitpick as cops, momentum maulers and ownership destroyers.)

Of course, these action-obsessed chiefs are not prescient; what they and their hustling underlings accomplish may bear little relationship to what they first imagined. It’s just that the action faction believes that if you get going (and are clever, energetic, and, above all, committed and capable of getting others committed), then you’ll learn quickly, adjust quickly—and get something worthwhile done in short order.

I’m not saying I especially like these action fanatics. Sam, the hesitant division chief in scenario No.1, is doubtless attractive; he loves to chew over ideas, asks good questions, etc. On the other hand, George, the scenario No.2 boss, is often abrupt, even rude. Part of him can’t figure out why the heck you’re giving the presentation in the first place: If you’re his type, you already will have gone out and scrounged supporters and dough and done something. George is a charter subscriber to the “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” school of subordinacy.

I don’t know how this trait develops. Maybe it’s in the genes. If you’ve got one sequence, you like to debate, and you attract fellow debaters; while the Waltons and McGowans just do stuff—and attract followers of the same ilk. Whatever the cause, I suspect this one quality, the drive to “do it,” explains a surprising share of the difference between success and failure in business—and life in general.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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