Book review: Leadership by focusing on the fundamentals

Doing What Matters: How to Get Results That Make a Difference – The Revolutionary Old-School Approach

By James Kilts, Crown Business, $35

I got lucky and had a chance to work for Hamilton’s answer to Jack Welch. He was a hometown CEO who took a company on the ropes and turned it into an industry leader.

He quarterbacked the turnaround by overhauling the company’s culture. Entitlement was out. Engagement was in. Respect and teamwork were core values and rewards were shared. He invested heavily in people and technology, banked on innovation and got everyone focused less on pushing commodity products and more on selling value-added solutions to customers.

When an industry association served up executive of the year honours, he insisted the entire senior leadership team be photographed for a magazine shoot. And he would have shoehorned the entire workforce into the shot had there been a wide enough camera lens.

Here’s the story I tell others when they ask about the CEO. The company created an award-winning essential skills program to help employees shore up their reading, writing and computer skills. The CEO championed the program and made sure it had the right people, resources and money to be a success. Employees were paid for the first hour they spent in the program each week so both staff and the company had some skin in the game. And the CEO made time to personally congratulate staff at their graduation ceremonies.

The program made smart business sense. To fire on all cylinders, the company needed a highly skilled workforce. Everyone comes to work wanting to do a good job, the CEO said more than once. Yet the payoff went well beyond employees doing more on the job. They could now help their kids with their homework and read bedtime stories to their grandkids. Here was yet another example of the company and its leader demonstrating respect for employees and doing the right thing.

So it’s no surprise that staff engagement, satisfaction and discretionary effort were off the charts. Or that confidence in senior management and the future of the company never wavered.

A quick endnote. If there had been a CEO fan club, the co-ordinator of the essential skills program would have been its president. She was the heart and soul of the program and was a leader herself when it came to literacy in the community.

When she was putting up the good fight against cancer, the then-retired CEO paid a hospital visit. A few months later, he went to the funeral home to quietly pay his respects to the co-ordinator’s family.

How this CEO led mirrors a lot of what author James Kilts did as CEO of Gillette, Nabisco and Kraft. His key to success? Focus on the fundamentals and stick with what matters.

"Whether you’re the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, the brand manager for a struggling product, a director of human resources, or an entrepreneur starting your own business, you’re always confronted with an insurmountable amount of information and a number of options, conflicting opinions and management theories that are as endless as they are confusing," says Kilts.

"Making these decisions isn’t a job for the timid or weak of heart. It takes guts to say these are the things that really matter; I’ll pay absolutely no attention to the rest. That’s the challenge everyone faces."

So what matters? Kilts says intellectual integrity, enthusiasm, action and understanding the right things matters. Having the right team and leadership process matters. So too does having the right road map and thinking for the long term.

Kilts’ advice for anyone stepping into a leadership role should be required reading.

"Your first day of a new job should be like the first hours of the D-Day landing by the Allies during World War II. It should be that intense and that filled with action. By the end of the Day 1, you should feel like a presidential candidate who has just completed a cross-country, 20 city campaign tour."

When he took over the helm at Gillette, Kilts started his day with an early morning breakfast meeting in the employee cafeteria and finished with a dinner date with the acting CEO. Even before he’d stepped foot in the building, Kilts had fired off an e-mail missive free of sugar-coating. Within a week, another e-mail went out, this time a 2,700 word state-of-the-union Q&A.

On his first day, Kilts held more than a dozen meetings, including a three-hour huddle with his direct reports. Most leaders opt for a flurry of perfunctory meet-and-greets and Kilts says that’s a mistake.

"A very different message is communicated when the new boss calls everyone together, dispenses with the meet and greet in three minutes, and spends the balance of three hours going through a detailed agenda of business issues, management process and personal expectations. This approach tells the group that you’re a person of action. You have a sense of urgency and will be engaged and involved."

In these meetings, Kilts defined his leadership style (what you see is what you get, no games or hidden agendas), made a promise to judge people based on performance and to reward excellent performance at a level that would surprise staff, admitted that he would be often wrong but never uncertain and called for innovation to define how everyone at Gillette would think and act.

There’s a whole lot more to this book. While the focus is on razor blades and shaving cream, the lessons about business fundamentals are transferable to any organization and to anyone in, or aspiring to a leadership role.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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