Business Studies the Gulf War for Tips for Success
It hasn’t happened yet, but corporate headhunter Harry Usher believes that it is only a matter of time.
“Any day now, the phone is going to ring, and a client is going to say, ‘I want a Norman Schwarzkopf-type,’ ” said Usher, managing director of the Los Angeles office of Russell Reynolds Associates.
Usher bases his prediction on the afterglow that suffused the business world in the wake of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “Back then, everybody wanted a Peter Ueberroth,” said Usher, who, as general manager of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, was Ueberroth’s chief lieutenant.
“People associated with great success become models,” Usher explained. “Already, Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell"--respectively the allied field commander and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--"have become shorthand for that intangible quality of leadership the private sector so values.”
Of course, with their gold-plated technology and virtually limitless resources, the generals were insulated from the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
But this is America, where nothing succeeds like success. In boardrooms and business schools, would-be conquerors are analyzing the allied victory in the Persian Gulf War for lessons to apply to business. They claim that what they are learning could shape everything from corporate strategies to labor relations for years to come.
“It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds,” insisted Robert Paulson, director of defense practice at the Los Angeles office of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Business and the military have a long history of borrowing from one another. Paulson noted that “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist from the 6th Century BC, is required reading in business schools and the Marine Corps.
“Good strategic thinking is good strategic thinking, whether in business or the military,” Paulson said.
“Corporate America can learn a lot from the war in the Gulf,” added H. Ross Perot, the legendary computer entrepreneur. “If we attack our competitive problems with Japan with the same level of professionalism, zeal and enthusiasm, anything is possible.”
But not everyone is so gung-ho.
“I’m appalled at the degree of chest-pounding in the wake of the war . . . (and) I’m very skeptical about declaring Schwarzkopf to be a water-walker,” said Tom Peters, co-author of “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.”
“It’s important that we not over-learn from this experience,” Peters said. “Mainly, what we learned is we could beat the crap out of someone who is tiny and under-equipped.”
Added Peters: “There is a huge difference between a lesson and a byproduct. If the war ends up unleashing optimism and energy in this country, those are byproducts, not lessons.”
Still, some of America’s leading management lights say they hope to borrow a leaf or two from Operation Desert Storm’s playbook.
“Just looking at it as a manager, I am envious,” said Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel Corp. in Santa Clara and the author of “High Output Management.”
“I’m awe-struck by the competence of the total operation,” Grove said. “Everybody was mesmerized by the bombs going down the air shafts, but the managerial excellence that suffused this thing--from the cosmic big picture to the littlest detail--was flabbergasting.”
Asked whether he would hire Powell or Schwarzkopf, Grove declared the question “presumptuous,” adding: “Let’s just say I’d be glad to go to work for either of them.”
Those who subscribe to the theory that businesses can learn from the Gulf War say the lessons fall into several broad categories:
* Set clear goals and stick to them.
“The clarity of the goal is absolutely essential in a military operation and in a business operation,” said Abraham Zaleznik, professor emeritus of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of “The Managerial Mystique: Restoring Leadership in Business.”
“If President Bush said it once, he said it a hundred times: ‘Iraq must leave Kuwait without condition,’ ” Zaleznik noted. “It was a goal that everyone from the top general to the men and women in the field could understand.”
Contrast Bush’s goal-setting with that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. At least to Western eyes, Hussein’s goal was much fuzzier. Was it to turn Kuwait into Iraq’s 19th province? To create a Palestinian state? To launch a jihad against the West?
Zaleznik said he saw parallels here to how the U.S. automobile industry squandered its lead to the Japanese. He cited Chrysler, an auto maker that invested billions of dollars in unrelated businesses, such as corporate jet manufacturer Gulfstream, while starving its auto plants.
“What were the auto workers on the plant floors supposed to think about Chrysler’s goals?” Zaleznik asked. By muddying the company’s goals, Chrysler “sowed confusion and undermined the organization.”
* Maintain a technological advantage.
Even those who warn against “over-learning” from the Gulf War agree that high-tech U.S. weaponry provided a decisive edge to allied forces.
“It is impossible to overstate the importance of staying ahead technologically,” said Robert H. Waterman Jr., who co-authored “In Search of Excellence” with Peters. “It applies across the board in American industry.”
Waterman pointed to a familiar culprit for U.S. lags in such crucial industries as robotics and semiconductors: a preoccupation with quarterly earnings and its negative impact on spending for research and development. “Maybe,” Waterman said, “Bush can use the bully pulpit to get us to think long term.”
Another lesson from the war, he said, is that training goes hand-in-hand with technology. “It does no good to invest massively in technology and have a bunch of workers who resist it or don’t know how to use it,” said Waterman, citing GM’s disastrous efforts to automate its plants in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
* Empower--and respect--your employees.
“It is no coincidence that the dogma of central control was richly embedded in both the Iraqi army and the Soviet economy, the two big losers in recent years,” Paulson said.
“Saddam represented the worst aspect of American labor-management relations of the ‘50s and ‘60s: ‘Do what I say or I’ll shoot you.’ He was rigid and gave his army little room to innovate.”
By contrast, the allied forces’ field doctrine emphasized flexible responses to changing conditions--an approach “crucial to winning on both the battlefield and in the marketplace,” Paulson said.
Many business experts also cited Schwarzkopf’s easy camaraderie with his forces as a big morale booster from which top business leaders could learn much.
“We saw example after example of deep, genuine concern by the flag officers for the people who were putting their lives on the line on the battlefield,” Perot said.
* Build strategic alliances and think multinationally.
“The CEO of the future is going to have to be a transnational player,” said Ted Jadick, New York-based partner in the management recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles. “What Schwarzkopf did in melding U.S., French, British, Italian and Arab forces was a masterpiece of organization.”
* Use intelligence creatively and avoid direct competition wherever possible.
This is a lesson that critics say American business has yet to learn. “We have known for years that the Japanese were coming. We have had that intelligence. But we have acted like the problem would simply go away,” Perot said.
The second part of the lesson is pure Schwarzkopf, by way of Sun Tzu.
“Why go up the middle when you can surprise the enemy with a clever attack from his unguarded flank?” Paulson asked. Example: Apple Computer’s clever exploitation of IBM’s graphics weakness in personal computing technology allowed Apple to make the Macintosh a viable product in the face of stiff odds.
Veteran watchers of business literature say they are certain that other lessons--and even a book or two--may surface to capitalize on the war.
Predicted San Francisco consultant David Graulich: “This will be the latest business fad for a while until the euphoria wears off.”