Back in the Golden Age of Comedy, when Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers dominated the nation’s movie marquees, the team of Abbott and Costello created a routine known as “Who’s on first?” Straight man Bud Abbott makes funny man Lou Costello increasingly bewildered and irate describing the members of a baseball team where all the players have confusingly funny nicknames – a guy named ‘Who?’ plays first base, a player named ‘What?’ is on second, and ‘I Don’t Know’ covers third. [Watch it here and howl (starts 15 seconds in.)]
The phrase ‘Who’s on first?’ and the rejoinder ‘I don’t know’ has been taken into common parlance in organizational life over the years to evoke a resigned befuddlement about the why-fors of leadership. A current example: the Wall St. Journal on Tuesday reported that GE’s Chief Exec traveling in the corporate jet was routinely shadowed by a second (empty, expensive) jet; recently resigned CEO Jeff Immelt was quoted saying he ‘didn’t know’ about the practice, which went on for many years. Jeez, ‘Who’s on first?’ someone might ask. ‘I don’t know…’ the ironic response.
I was part of another linguistically intriguing conversation recently in discussing a paradox of leadership in organizations: go up for ‘what,’ go down for ‘how.’ This one skirts the ridiculous, however, and in a few simple words, packs an important message for leaders wanting to give the right answer for ‘Who’s on first?’ in their organization.
The ‘what’ is strategy – what we’re doing here, why we’re doing it, what will make us successful in serving our customers and beating our competition. The ‘how’ is tactics – the work we’re going to do, how it’s done, and how we’re going to work together to do it successfully. The paradox arises in clarifying who in an organization should be properly responsible for which.
Here’s how the paradox comes about.
When an organization is just getting started, the early days of a single store or a single product, there is limited specialization of task amongst the organization’s members. The ‘what?’ The ‘how?’ That’s on all of us. A customer comes in, everybody has to know how to serve them; an order comes in, drop what you’re doing and get the wash out, a total focus in the moment on what’s most important. It’s the phase of organizational growth I call ‘everybody does everything.’
Everyone is supposed to know how to do a little bit of everything to make the organization successful, a bit like kiddie soccer as everyone swarms the ball and falls all over each other trying to get the job done. Strategy is tested immediately on the front lines, and the organization pivots as needed in the direction dictated by success with those customers everyone is involved in serving.
Fast forward into dozens of stores spread across a wide geography, multiple product extensions within numerous product lines, and an organization of 100s or 1000s. Strategy will have stabilized somewhat by now, and a range of jobs will have taken on more definition.
Organizationally, if you’re still playing kiddie soccer you’ve got a problem.
In the same way that young soccer players learn over time to space themselves out, play their position on the field, and orchestrate ball movement so all contribute to effective team play, so players in growing organizations must differentiate responsibilities and specialize in their roles over time.
This inevitably leads to management roles being created to coordinate the action. Who gets promoted to management? The best person at doing the job, the best person at ‘how.’ You want your best people in positions of leadership, right?
Therein lies the root of the paradox: those who become responsible for ‘what’ historically are those best at ‘how.’ They can tell people what to do, why it’s important and how to do it. One-stop shopping. Pretty cool.
Except it’s not, for a couple of very important reasons.
Number 1. People won’t get to learn how to do things on their own if you’re constantly telling them how to do their job. Perhaps useful in early days or in some situations over time, but increasingly unnecessary as people grow. It’s commonly said that ‘experience is the best teacher,’ and ‘you learn as much from failure as from success.’ It’s a challenge to have these maxims operate when managers with the power to tell people what to do continue to play like they know better.
Number 2. Organizations will fail to scale if they are built on managers positioned in stop-gap jobs telling people below them how to do the work. You get an internally focused department where daily work flow depends on the manager’s special touch for success. These are the units where managers complain that they don’t have enough people, and yet no one is ready for promotion.
Smart leaders find ways to push responsibility down. Here are two of the better ones:
- Delegate final assembly. Whatever the work of the unit, assign responsibility for assuring a quality product to someone on the team, or to the team as a whole. Market research? Assign someone or ones responsibility for ensuring the research plan asks all the right questions, creates the right data gathering approach, envisions the necessary and sufficient end result. Require those responsible for doing the work to wear the unit leader’s hat and develop the broader perspective – to learn by doing
- Master the question. You got promoted for having all the right answers; now your job is to ask the right questions, which is no simple matter. Your questions will train your people how to think. ‘What has to be believed for us to decide we should enter this new market?’ requires more complex thinking than a sequence like ‘How big is the market? Who are the competitors? What share can we attain by when and at what cost?’ that gets at the same end. The sooner you can ask the former vs the latter, the stronger your team
It’s interesting to also examine the other side of the paradox, where those responsible for ‘how’ know something about ‘what.’ Recall the early days where strategy is tested immediately on the front lines and the organization pivots regularly toward positive response. As organizations grow, those developing strategy at the top lose that immediate contact with the activities that produce day-to-day results. Yet the people on the front lines still know best how effective that strategy is, because they see how well it’s working. You ‘go down for how,’ but you better also find ways to manage this paradox: that those on the front lines know something better than you do about strategy.
Smart leaders find ways to stay connected to the action where their company’s front line employees are working with customers to enact the strategy. Here are two guidelines:
- Get ‘ground-engaged.’ A phrase I heard attributed to Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot. At some point before each monthly board meeting, every Home Depot board member had to spend a day behind an orange apron, waiting on customers in a store. He felt they all had to be engaged at the ground level in the business, in order to sit in the board room and develop strategy, in order to lead the company. What’s your equivalent?
- Shop your top competitors. Top management of a major regional bank are all active customers of their competitors, for a checking account, for a credit card, for a loan. They stay on top of ‘what good looks like’ in their industry, and know intimately what they’ve got to beat. How can you do the same?
Lastly, I’d offer an important corollary to ‘go up for what, go down for how:’ hire people better than you. Find people who could push you to think in new ways, or with experience you don’t have. Hire people to work for you who can do things you can’t do, give them challenging assignments and watch them grow into unimaginably useful resources for the organization.
If you start your leadership assignment with stronger people, you’ll have less to teach them, and will get to better results quicker. And if you’re looking to move up or move on, it’s much easier for you to earn that next assignment when you have someone ready to take the reins when you decide to let them go. It’s another way to be sure you-know-who is on first!
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org