I was at IDEO a couple of months ago. They were kind enough to ask me to come speak at one of their Friday "Know Hows." A guy called Scott Underwood gave me a quick tour, and about 10 minutes in, I thought to myself, "this guy is really good at this." Later, several IDEOers made a point to ask if I’d "met Scott," and half way through dinner, when Scott was talking about something, Tom Kelley leaned over and said, with real affection, "this is classic Scott."
I remember meeting someone like this at the Harvard Business School. There was a junior member of faculty who everyone loved. He was good at some of the things you are supposed to be good at HBS, and he was smart as can be. But none of this seemed to explain why he, like Scott, was a minor celebrity in the organization.
Neither of these guys was remarkable for their power, accomplishments, or any specialized body of knowledge. Both were likable, but neither of them was charismatic. No, if these guys had celebrity, I think it was because they were both seen to be exemplars of the spirit of the corporation. In fact, the phrase that started to role around in my head was, perhaps too melodramatically, "soul of the corporation."
Compare these two guys to another species of corporate life, the sacrificial change agent. I haven’t met anyone like this in the flesh, so I am now pretty working from the business press. A.G. Lafley is the CEO of P&G and if there is a success story in marketing right now this guy is definitively it. Lafley is nothing short of a sensation. But it’s hard not to wonder about the significance of his predecessor, Durk I. Jager.
To judge from the journalistic treatments, Jager chose to drag P&G kicking and dreaming into the future. He upset a great many people, but in the process he did A.G. Lafley an immense favor. Whatever AG did to reform the corporation,and these reforms have been radical and continuous, he was going to look like a paragon of consideration by comparison. It is even possible that Jager saw his role as deliberately sacrificial. He knew he was going to pay for this reforms, and he did them anyway.
Mary Minnick is the outgoing CMO at the Coca-Cola Company. To judge from the press reports, it sounds as if she might belong to this particular category of change agent. Here’s what she had to say this week in the Financial Times.
Change is uncomfortable, just as a human characteristic and for organisations as a whole. It’s challenging, it’s complicated, and it doesn’t always make people comfortable.
Minnick pursued change anyhow. As she told shareholders. "I tend to be quite discontented in general. It will never be fast enough or soon enough or good enough."
And we may judge how far she was prepared to transform the Coke paradigm, when she says,
All the work we did suggested that consumers are using beverages in dramatically different ways, ranging from disease prevention, to hydration, to weight reduction, to relaxation, to relieving stress and to fortification of nutrition.
Change agents of this kind don’t stay for very long. Ms. Minnick lasted 20 months. But then that is perhaps the very nature of their contribution to the corporation. They so upset the apple cart, they can’t stay for very long.
What’s weird is that the new corporation is going to need both of these kinds of people. As things speed up, as the corporation grows cloudier, both continuity and discontinuity are called for in equal measure. As things speed up, as change grows more intense, it is really hard sometimes to remember what the corporation stands for. How useful to have a "soul of the corporation" person around to remind us. But then there will be moments when the corporation finds itself so far behind the curve that something revolutionary is called for. Bring in the revolutionary. (And make sure the pay package is rich, because they won’t be here for long.)
Now do these two creatures coexist? Well, you’ve got me. But then almost everything in the coming corporation is a bit of a mystery at the moment.
Anonymous. 2006. Queen of Pop. BusinessWeek. August 7, 2006. here.
Markels, Alex. 2006. Turning the Tide at P&G. U.S. News. October 22, 2006. here.
Willman, John. 2007. Soft drink survivor with no bitter aftertaste. Financial Times. February 26, 2007. p. 10.