Year after year, my friend Bob listened to discussions about out of-the-box thinking. It has become the ultimate business cliché. Corporate meetings overflow with discussions about who is in the box, who is out of the box, and what the box actually is. After feeling boxed in by all this chatter, Bob couldn’t stand it any more. He had to do something extreme. He was in search of a breakthrough, but wasn’t sure where to start.
So Bob wandered down to his local appliance store to buy a refrigerator, just to get a box he could fit into. Bob encountered a salesman named Artie in the appliance department, who quickly became confused by Bob’s lack of interest in any refrigerator features. Bob explained to him that those features were too ‘in-the-box’ to be appealing to him, but Bob soon realized that Artie was too ‘boxed in’ in this instance to understand.
Artie looked befuddled when Bob asked his only question:
“Which refrigerator comes with the biggest box?”
This question was not covered in the appliance store training manual.
To calm Artie down, Bob informed him that refrigerators used to be called ice boxes.
Following that line of thinking, Bob asked for the largest refrigerator with the fewest features.
As soon as Artie located the bulkiest, lowest rated model in the showroom, Bob was thrilled. However, Artie was nearing a state of shock when Bob asked if he could pay for the refrigerator but only keep the box. Clearly, Bob’s thinking was so far out-of-the-box that salesman in the store was able to help him. Artie stared at Bob as he came from another planet. Bob had to take the refrigerator with the box.
The next morning, a large truck backed up Bob’s driveway. Two deliverymen unloaded the refrigerator and asked where the kitchen was. Bob told them he already had a refrigerator in the kitchen, so could they unpack this new one and then take it away, because Bob only wanted to keep the box. This request terrified Rafael the crew chief. He had never heard such a request. There was no policy or protocol for him to follow. Rafael stammered that he could only take the refrigerator back if it was in its box.
Once again, Bob had hit the wall.
Bob knew it was necessary to get the refrigerator out of the box so he could begin his experiment. He directed the men to unpack the refrigerator and leave it in the garage next to the box.
Saying goodbye, the delivery crew looked at Bob in a similar way that a German Shepard looks at his master when something incomprehensible has happened. As the truck rumbled down the driveway, Bob was finally ready to get to work.
It was chilly in the garage as Bob crawled into his seven-foot long refrigerator box. The first thing he noticed was how dark it is inside a box. After closing the entry flap, he sat down and took a deep breath. Looking around, Bob could see nothing but blackness. The inside of a box can quickly become a suffocating prison. Bob tried lying down, then rose to his knees and shouted as loud as he could. The thick cardboard walls deadened the sound of his voice. The folly of his experiment began to weigh Bob down.
What had he expected the inside of a box to be like?
Of course it was stifling and pitch dark. Long exposure to this condition might lead to asphyxiation or some other physical disability. Who can survive life in a box?
Bob’s mind was racing as he tried to figure out what to do next. Should he meditate? Should he try to sleep? Should he escape the box and return the refrigerator for a refund?
After a few deep breaths, Bob started taking on a prison mentality. He had seen the movie The Great Escape, and watched numerous other prisons break movies. He had also seen The Birdman of Alcatraz in which Burt Lancaster turns his jail cell into a bird sanctuary.
Now Bob was thinking!
What would Burt Lancaster do in this situation?
Should he try a birdcall?
Unable to see anything, Bob remembered that there was a pen in his shirt pocket. He pulled out the pen and started poking at one of the walls of the box. Soon he had created a pinhole. Through the pinhole streamed a tiny beam of light. This was the first sign of progress. Bob was elated, and quickly crawled around the box poking holes in at least a hundred different spots. Not only was light streaming into the box, but also fresh air began to flow through those tiny holes. Digging further through one of the holes, Bob managed to carve an opening large enough to see into the garage. A small fan was only three feet away. Bob crawled out of the box, aimed the fan towards the box and turned it on. Picking up a nearby sofa cushion, he returned to solitary confinement…or should we say: his box.
Suddenly, life in the box was bearable. Comfortable on his cushion, Bob was tempted to start writing commemorative graffiti on the inside of the box with his pen, but instead sat down to contemplate his next move. He pulled out his cell phone and called a local Chinese Restaurant to order some lunch. Then he phoned his wife. She asked Bob what he was doing. Bob told her he was boxing. She didn’t even flinch as she simply warned him “just be careful…. I’ll be home for dinner at 6”.
Bob’s spirits were definitely rising.
He darted out of the box to unlock the garage door and then dragged a small television set into his box. It was connected to cable. Bob turned on CNN. Now he was plugged into the outside world. He was ready to check on the stock market.
The sound of a small car pulled up to the house. Bob heard a car door open, so he shouted out ‘I’m in the garage – the door is open”. Fortunately the deliveryman had a good sense of hearing and understood English. When he entered the garage, Bob yelled over here – Inside the box!” As if nothing was unusual, the deliveryman opened the box flap and handed him a hot aromatic bag of food. Bob handed the man some cash with a big tip and asked him to shut the garage door on the way out. Unpacking his meal, Bob saw on the stock ticker that his stocks were up. Over a bowl of wonton soup, Bob made a sales call on his cell phone. Amazingly, he closed the deal.
As finishing his delicious lunch, Bob decided to expand his plan. Things were getting crowded in his box. If he had more boxes, he could probably fit a small futon and coffee table inside and start using his computer. Since the computer was connected to WIFI, he could run his whole business out of just a few boxes. A third box could easily house a small file cabinet and an all-In-one printer. Bob can still remember what an out-of-the box idea ‘all-in-one’ printers once were. Now they are vestigial dinosaurs for those primitive enough to use paper products.
Bob realized that the privacy of the box was serene. He had adapted to a whole new way of doing business. He had never had a home office. Now he decided to terminate his office lease and start working out of his garage.
Bob returned to the appliance store to buy some more refrigerators. However, he was worried about Artie’s mental state, fearing that this multiple out-of-the-box thought process might cause Artie to faint. Bob considered going to a different appliance store for each refrigerator, but that idea didn’t ‘scale’,
Cautiously approaching Artie, Bob asked if there was a discount for buying multiple refrigerators. Although in a daze about Bob’s unique purchasing habits, Artie was able to get Bob a significant discount for buying three more refrigerators. When the same delivery crew backed his truck up Bob’s driveway the next day, they knew exactly where to unload. While unpacking the boxes in the garage, Rafael asked if Bob consider selling one of the unused refrigerators to a friend of his. Rafael unpacked all the boxes and then purchased one of the refrigerators for more than Bob paid for it. As his truck rolled down the driveway, Bob realized he could make money selling refrigerators once they were out of the box.
That is how my friend Bob got into the appliance business – by thinking out-of-the box!
Recently, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the CEO Club of New York. This lively group of Chief Executive Officers convenes each month to compare notes, discuss pressing business issues, and network. Their meeting is a delightful event held at the Harvard Club, which includes roundtable discussions, guest speakers, cocktails and lunch. During the time spent amongst fellow CEO’s, I listened to numerous concerns and challenges faced by men and women in leadership positions. It became clear that all CEO’s go through similar phases of self-questioning and self-evaluation, demonstrating that CEO life can be exasperating as well as euphoric.
Corporate coach extraordinaire Brian Souza was the guest speaker after lunch was served.
In sorting through his analysis of management styles, Brian divided them into four distinct categories: The Nice Guy, the Do It All, the Micro Manager, and the Coach.
Creating a graph with Productivity on one axis, and Rapport on the other, Brian expertly explained how the first three of these styles always run into serious problems and inhibit employee productivity, while a Coach style of management boosts employee performance and greatly benefits a company. When the CEO and upper management adopt a coaching style, it empowers employees to reach their potential while also maximizing rapport with management. This constructive state filters down through all levels of the company if properly implemented.
Here is Brian Souza’s breakdown of the four different management styles as I understood it:
In Nice Guy mode, management is overly concerned with rapport and tends to overlook important matters relating to productivity and performance.
In Do It All mode, managers show distrust for those under them by taking over key tasks and not allowing employees the satisfaction of completing jobs/projects they may have started. This creates very bad social dynamics in a company and leads to poor rapport between management and employees. Such a style is particularly destructive in larger companies.
Micro Management has similar negative effects on employee rapport as Do It All, but instead of distrust, employees suffer from annoyance and irritation. It is difficult to discern whether it is worse having someone constantly hovering over your shoulder, or having them repeatedly rip the work out of your hands.
A Coach method of management enriches rapport while teaching employees do their jobs better. In its optimal state, the coaching style of management benefits all parties involved while leading to greater corporate profits.
My contribution to this discussion is what I call ‘The Hat Theory of Managing People and Business’. Wise delegation of authority and responsibility is the key. Effective delegation facilitates the creation of the healthy corporate culture necessary for the success of any company. My personal metaphor for how this is accomplished is ‘The Hat Theory’.
In small businesses, each CEO must wear many hats since there are few, if any other employees. There is little delegation of authority in this case, except in the hiring of various outside contractors who can temporarily be given ‘hats’ to wear when needed. Often operating in a vacuum, the CEO of a small business must be clear on all hats needed in order to limit eventual burnout caused by trying to do too much. Clarifying such a hat situation helps to prioritize the use of one’s time and energy.
CEO’s with few or no employees can benefit from the exercise of autobrainstorming, a process that allows an executive to establish a vibrant boardroom in his/her own mind. The process of autobrainstorming provides a system for lone individuals to see all sides of even the most complex situations, as if consulting with a number of colleagues. This system employs the same process used in team brainstorming sessions, except the autobrainstormer must administer all aspects of brainstorming technique in the absence of other voices. Writing down each challenge and then opening one’s mind to a variety of possibilities provides the necessary input to be considered and processed. This initial procedure must be done without judgment. Autobrainstorming requires some training, but can easily be mastered by any CEO open to flexible multi-dimensional thinking. The ability to create such thought patterns, known as asymmetric thinking, is a most beneficial skill.
In large companies, the Hat Theory is much different. An effective large company CEO must know how to distribute the hats in a manner that maximizes employee performance and corporate profits. This type of CEO must also keep track of the hats, and know when it is time to shift their possession. Every corporate culture is dependent on the sagacious distribution of hats. A good CEO also will keep a couple of hats in his own locked closet, including the oversized hat of ultimate responsibility. Along with each hat distributed, the CEO conveys power, accountability, resources, reward and recognition. When all hats have been properly distributed, companies function more efficiently and have a much better chance to succeed.
Mid sized companies often present the most difficult dilemmas regarding Hat Theory, as limited resources frequently collide with oversized needs and responsibilities. Chains of command are often understaffed, leaving the manager wearing one small hat in desperate need of help he cannot find. Without stretching this metaphor beyond its usefulness, let it be said that giving a manager a hat to wear does not guarantee successful delegation of responsibility. Each hat carries with it a complex array of issues. That is the key to Hat Theory as well as management: Knowing what to delegate, and how to properly support that delegation of authority.
Too often, employees are given positions of authority without being given the resources to accomplish stated goals. This is just as serious a management problem as the employee who is given an assignment without being given the authority to carry it out. CEO’s in companies of all sizes share the common challenge of making the correct call on who to empower, how much power to delegate, and how much support to give in each business situation. This high wire act, onto which I have cutely bestowed the shape of a hat, is only part of a CEO’s total job that inevitably includes major responsibilities such as formulating corporate vision and maintaining functional integration of all business operations.
This is why there is great camaraderie among CEO’s -they all face similar issues that often seem overwhelming. Gathering together for a monthly lunch is an excellent way for high level executives to share experiences, learn some new approaches, and compare hat collections. It is refreshing to be in the company of so many motivated men and women as they openly discuss the endless search to achieve maximum potential in both business and personal arenas.
Such a gathering highlights the unique business perspective of the CEO position, and the undeniable fact that as a collective group, CEO’s are the drivers of our contemporary culture. Regardless of the scale of their company, every CEO has the opportunity to sculpt a company that can potentially impact society, which is the ultimate challenge and reward of running a business enterprise.