Executive Recipe for Challenges: Add Levity & Stir
Terry Braverman and Company

Executive Recipe for Challenges: Add Levity & Stir

Quote for the week: “Give me levity, or give me death!” – Terry Braverman

Confronting a massive blunder that cost the company ten million dollars, Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, did exactly what an executive should do. The manager responsible for the error was called into his office. After a moment of tense silence, the manager muttered dejectedly, “I suppose you want my resignation.” Mr. Watson replied, “Are you kidding? We just spent ten million dollars educating you.” And with that light-hearted vote of confidence, the manager went on to become one of IBM’s highest achievers, eventually promoted to senior vice-president.

    

Merrill Lynch’s former Chairman and CEO, Dan Tully, infused a flamboyant, extroverted style to the stodgy world of finance during turbulent times. He welcomed friends, colleagues and customers alike with a broad comic brogue, and was known to croon “Danny Boy” to a roomful of brokers. He wore corny neckties and handed out tiny lapel pins depicting the Merrill Lynch bull to everyone from secretaries to the COO. Tully’s core philosophy: "Our most important asset rides the elevator to work every morning." When Tully stepped down from his position, a board member bemoaned, “He was the spark that started the engine at board meetings, enlivening all of us to be more resourceful and not take it all so seriously.”

 

Executives need to be skillful at reframing situations that present a challenge, and steering them into a positive direction. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was asked in a television interview about his reputation for maintaining his cool during heated business meetings. “I just visualize everyone at the table in their underwear,” he confided. This gave him a sense of amused detachment that allowed him to carry negotiations to a positive resolution.

 

One executive was literally caught with his pants down. A new executive had taken over her company’s banking relationship, and the bank’s CFO was giving her a tour of the corporate offices. “Cheryl, I need to show you the president’s office because it’s so elegant and comfortable, with so many amenities,” the CFO merrily remarked. “Well, maybe we shouldn’t disturb him,” Cheryl replied. But the CFO was insistent: “It’s no problem. He’s not in yet.” So they moseyed in and she was indeed impressed by the posh surroundings. Now at ease, she eagerly inquired about seeing some of the amenities he had mentioned. He escorted her around the corner to the president’s private washroom, pushed the door open and there was the president of the bank, sitting on the throne! As Cheryl’s face turned fire engine red, he looked at her and said very earnestly, “This is how I greet all our business partners. It’s nice to meet you. I don’t know who you are, but give me a few minutes and I’ll be right with you.” In retrospect, Cheryl said it set the stage for a very fruitful and close relationship, and in future meetings they would always laugh about their initial encounter.

        

At IBM, inside sales executive Karen Donnalley oversees a staff of customer service people who sell computers and accessories throughout the U.S. Servicing approximately 75,000 accounts “is a very difficult job,” she acknowledged. “It’s really important to recognize even the small successes in this environment. I try to make sure my team is happy. People who enjoy their job tend to do a better job.” In Donnalley’s work world, there are mornings started with the chaotic din contrived by musically inept salespeople on drums, tuba, accordion, and other instruments played in a “wake-up” concert. A gong is hit when a salesperson closes their first deal of the day, and they advance a wooden horse bearing their photo down a miniature race track. She’s initiated a crazy socks day, a silly hat day, and organizes monthly skits ranging from presidential debates to nostalgic dress up themes. Donnalley knows from experience that if her staff is feeling upbeat, it will be projected in the phone calls to customers, making them feel good as well. And a happy customer means more business. In one year, sales in her department ballooned 30%, and in six months her staff grew by 50%. “It’s very much about business commitment. I have my strong serious side too, but being able to laugh at myself and with my team elicits loyalty and dedication that I treasure. It makes people want to come to work.” And keeps other department heads eavesdropping, wondering what she’s concocting next.

         

A few years ago I worked with a CEO who was also a ventriloquist. He would bring a dummy to board meetings, especially when there was unpalatable news to be served. It seemed to make the news more digestible when it came from the dummy. Instead of an atmosphere of paralyzing fear and uncertainty, board members said it helped to cushion the blow, cause chuckles, and inspire creative alternatives. I asked him if he ever brought a dummy along to negotiate deals. “I did,” he replied. “He used to be our senior vice-president.”

 

 

 

 

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