The Turnaround Champs

Tom Peters

Hundreds of corporate bosses have confronted monstrous change agendas in the past 10 years; but only a few have made a genuine about-face. To wit: Jack Welch at General Electric, Mike Walsh at the Union Pacific Railroad (and now Tenneco), and Percy Barnevik at ABB Asea Brown Boveri. What do the three dynamos have in common?

* Frighteningly smart. Most CEOs I’ve met are very bright. Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik are almost in a league of their own. I, for one, am intimidated by each member of the trio! Don’t try to blow one by this gang—or hide bad news in a footnote to transparency No. 226.

* Animal energy. CEOs in general are an energetic lot. But these three are off the charts. Fortune‘s Strat Sherman claims Welch, whom he interviewed extensively, “just happens to have 2,000 percent more energy than the rest of us.” Ditto Walsh and Barnevik. It’s exhausting to watch these guys.

* Irrational about action. Though Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik are superb thinkers, they are also monumentally impatient. Like Ross Perot, they simply can’t countenance, or even understand, procrastination. Normal barriers don’t seem to exist for them, and they don’t expect such hurdles to slow their underlings either. When you sign up for something, you do it—and intervening acts of God, nature, and competitors are no excuse for not getting it done on time.

* Distilled vision. Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik are masters of “the speech.” Though all three grasp nuance, they’ve boiled their message down to a handful of critical principles—with which they will ceaselessly bore front-line employees, senior executives, securities analysts, and the man on the street. You have no trouble figuring out where this gang is coming from.

* Cut to the chase. It was clear to Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik that the time for mincing half-steps was long past. They took the “big bath,” as the accountants call it, all at once. They figured they had one brief opportunity to mount a real revolution, and they grabbed it, compressing years of work (by other chiefs’ standards) into weeks.

* Disgust for bureaucracy. Many CEOs, though impatient and action oriented, are quickly captured by their bureaucracies. This trio seems to be genetically averse to all forms of bureaucracy—and the wrath of the gods will be brought down upon anyone, very senior to very junior, who allows turf issues or the procedure manual to interfere with progress.

* Performance freaks. Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik slashed layers of bureaucrats, liberated the devil out of independent unit managers—and then held their toes very close to the fire. Sure the world is ambiguous and changing fast. Nonetheless, you’ve been given a task to perform and given all the rope anyone could ask for and more: So perform. “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way,” is Ted Turner’s version of this.

* Straight shooters. A local union leader told me that Pat Carrigan, the first woman to manage a General Motors assembly plant, “ain’t got a phony bone in her body.” Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik also have a visceral affinity for the truth. Bad news or good, they tell it to you straight. In return, they expect you to tell it to them straight. Period.

* Tomorrow is another day. These execs think fast, decide fast. And they don’t rehash yesterday’s work. David Glass, CEO of Wal-Mart, said that Sam Walton’s skill No.1 was his ability to leave yesterday’s cock-up behind and get on with tomorrow. This ranks near the top for Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik as well.

* Half a loaf is no loaf at all. “It ain’t done till it’s done” could be the Welch, Walsh, Barnevik joint motto. We’ve seen lots of half-turnarounds in recent times—Xerox, Kodak, Du Pont. Half-way is no way for these three.

* Driven individuals. I’m no psychologist, but “driven” does not seem excessive when describing these three bosses. They believe the impossible is possible, and are determined to prove it, then re-prove it, day after day. In short, I wouldn’t want to stand between them and what they want to accomplish.

Are there other skills that mark large-scale turnarounds? Sure. For example, Welch, Walsh, and Barnevik can’t match Michael Eisner’s wacky brilliance, which was the right potion for launching bedraggled Disney on a new trajectory. But GE, Union Pacific, and ABB needed to trash 100 years of old practices gone stale; and our trio was the perfect chain-saw crew.

But they did more than hack. The three were also master rebuilders, if not quite Eisners. Mass destruction, I’ve concluded, must come first and fast at sagging corporations. Without the reconstruction, though, the pain is wasted.

Welch, Walsh and Barnevik are fit for the Mount Rushmore of corporate renovation. Emulating them is no small order. Furthermore, these 11 traits don’t seem to do much good in halves. A half-impatient Jack Welch is a pitiful sight to imagine, but one that brings too many struggling corporate chiefs to mind.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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