The CEO Goes Back to Work!

Tom Peters

Most CEOs, surveys suggest, are not smitten with the desktop computer, even if they own one. But some are, and its impact is effectively documented by Mary Boone’s book, Leadership and the Computer. While Boone provides several useful frameworks, 16 pithy interviews with CEOs give the book its special edge. A few examples:

* Richard Pogue is Managing Partner of the global, 1,200-attorney firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue. The outfit is “technologized” from stem to stern, via electronic document exchange (even with clients), computer-based research, and computerized dockets.

Pogue is an electronic-mail addict. He insists that the medium is a major spur to keeping communication “personal,” collegiality high, and far-flung offices part of the team. E-mail, he adds, lets people “converse” with him who otherwise might be too intimidated to drop by his office. And while a memo may sit in his briefcase for weeks, the “psychology of wanting to wipe that screen clean” impels Pogue to respond almost instantly to his 35 to 40 daily electronic messages.

* Chairman Burnell Roberts of the huge Mead Corp. is hooked on e-mail, too, calling it “a marvelous facilitator” and noting its surprising “intimacy.” Roberts and his colleagues also built a unique global data base of personal contacts. When Roberts goes overseas, for instance, he’ll tap into the data base to survey possible contacts; the constantly expanding, electronically tied network is essential to Roberts’ global team-building and knowledge-capitalization efforts.

Roberts is also a frequent user of Mead’s on-line human resource system. He likes the unfiltered information it provides on up and comers: Top management, he surmises, is much more likely than conservative personnel staffers to consider candidates with unconventional profiles.

* William Esrey heads United Telecom (and, thence, US Sprint). He also touts e-mail for opening “a dialogue” with employees at all levels, from all over the firm.” (They) feel that they are dealing directly with me,” he says, and speak differently than if the communications were being screened.

(Esrey promulgated a few e-mail “rules.” One urges users not to take even a second to go back and fix misspellings or other glitches. “The idea is that you communicate (with no fuss),” he emphasizes.)

But e-mail is the least of it for Esrey. At U.S. Sprint, for instance, he played a hands-on role in developing an on-line program that provides cash flow/cash position figures, updated daily. The system went a long way toward getting everyone focused on cash management. Esrey regularly taps into external databases as well. For example, his desktop system is keyed to search hourly for news on principal competitors. He also merged extensive external data into internal financial databases, to promote what he calls a culture change from internal to external awareness.

* When he was chairman of Frito-Lay, Mike Jordan (who now heads PepsiCo International Food & Beverages) likewise pushed on-line information systems to spearhead a culture shift. First he created “finer and finer profit and loss structures” to enhance commitment and accountability; by putting numerous people “in touch with the data, we empowered (them),” Jordan claims. He also aimed to broaden perspectives and end functional isolation by providing everyone easy access to information from all across the $4.5-billion behemoth. Jordan then probed the new on-line system to monitor progress among the firm’s 350 to 400 annual “marketplace initiatives.” Doing so sent managers a clear message: Cut the functional feuding and get on with it.

* CEO Richard Crandall’s Comshare Inc. pioneered executive information systems. Crandall sets the tone by using his company’s products to the hilt. (A surprising number of computer/software chiefs don’t, perversely enough.) Like United Telecom’s Esrey, Crandall relies on external databases to keep direct tabs on competitors and the industry. He also waxes eloquent about getting data before it’s edited by well-meaning staffers. Crandall pictures himself as an “interactive navigator” amidst a swirl of raw information available at his fingertips.

Crandall likes to build on-line measures and quick feedback loops for everything. Customer satisfaction is his hobby and obsession, and he aims to make it everyone else’s as well. On a daily basis, Crandall tracks the rate of customer problems solved, and even charts the number of “strategic sales visits” to Comshare; the latter turns out to be an ingenious leading business indicator.

Issues raised by these cases are, of course, complex. When, for instance, does incisive probing go beyond directing attention toward key initiatives and become power-sapping micromanagement? (Or how about the case of Aetna Life & Casualty Chairman Ron Compton: He confesses to an active e-mail hookup on his sailboat. Ye gads!) Information technology, like all the tools that preceded it, is a double-edged sword. Nonetheless, each of these stories provides food for thought, especially for the all too numerous execs who have failed to dip their toes into IT’s waters. If nothing else, Leadership and the Computer should badly embarrass these laggards.

(c) 1991 TPG Communications.

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