By J.F. McKenna
“The largest single source of failed promotions…is the failure to think through, and help others think through, what a new job requires.” — Peter Drucker
Stan Modic had known me a half-dozen years, my apprentice years in business journalism. We had worked together briefly on Industry Week magazine, and we had crossed paths as friendly competitors after that. A legend in publishing, Stan had always made time to look out for newcomers—a kindness for which I’ll always be grateful.
As my journeyman years began, I found myself as a petitioner in his suburban Cleveland office. There, Stan relished his reputation as the crusty ex-editor of an Ohio daily far more than his national status as a magazine innovator. For Stan, still the old-time newsroom guy, interviewing pleasantries began and ended with “Sit down.”
“I’m looking through resumes and I see the name Joe McKenna,” Stan said. “I figure there can’t be two of you. Here’s the situation: I need a staff editor. You know how to write. You can easily pick up the details of the industry as you go along. I know you can. I probably can’t pay you what you were making at the other place.”
What his offer lacked in contemporary HR flourishes it made up for in clarity, delivered in Stan’s gruff, rapid-fire style. Stan had a job that he thought I could do. I knew I could do it. And working for Stan would be a bonus that didn’t need any elaboration. Three words from me sealed the deal: I’ll take it.
“One more thing,” he said. “If you don’t work out, I’ll fire you in three months.”
I came on board and attached myself to Stan as an eager protégé. I learned the national manufacturing beat, I further mastered my craft, and I ultimately succeeded Stan in the chief editor’s chair. (See “Stan Modic: Guardian Angel and One Hell of a Journalist” )
More important, Stan made me a devotee of Peter Drucker. The “father of modern management” was a peer of, as well as an inspiration to, my brilliant if sometimes grouchy boss. The Austrian-born polymath, who died in 2006, consistently preached that “the single most important thing to remember about any enterprise is that results exist only on the outside.” Through a long shelf’s worth of insightful books, Drucker still reminds us that leadership is about performance, those outside results.
“Leadership does matter, of course,” Drucker writes in Managing for the Future. “But, alas, it is something different from what is now touted under this label. It has little to do with ‘leadership qualities’ and even less to do with ‘charisma.’ It is mundane, unromantic, and boring. Its essence is performance.”
Which brings me to the nation’s executive-hiring decision on Nov. 6.
The Republic’s founding fathers invented a novel structure for our individual authority, embedded in unalienable rights, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Suffice it to say that ours is performance-based hiring at the highest level. The stakes are even higher.
To pinch a Stan comment I heard more than once, “Let’s not screw it up.”
In that Modician spirit, then, let’s forego wandering through the weeds of the presidential contenders’ slickly packaged ads and the seemingly endless polemics served up by the candidates’ surrogates. Instead, let’s consider some well-researched, non-partisan wisdom from Stan’s friend Drucker, who originally shared his thoughts in Harvard Business Review in 1985.
Drucker acknowledges that “there is no such thing as an infallible judge of people, at least not this side of the Pearly Gates.” But he lavishes praise on two hiring genius from different ends of the human-resources spectrum—World War II General George C. Marshall and General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan.
As Drucker notes, the military general and the corporate general followed similar hiring principles, the kind that every 2012 voter should embrace before visiting the polls. The principles start with If I put a person into a job and he or she does not perform, I have made a mistake. I have no business blaming that person, no business invoking the ‘Peter Principle,’ no business complaining.
Adds gravity to that well-worn slogan Your Vote Counts, doesn’t it?
Another principle touted by Marshall, Sloan and Drucker is this: Of all the decisions an executive makes, none is more important as the decisions about people because they determine the performance capacity of the organization.
Substitute electorate for executive and you’ll forget about letting your lucky coin determine the choice in the polling booth. In the public square, your choices usher in profound consequences. That is, if you still subscribe to the phrase about government’s being “instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Our economically and psychically tired country totters into the home stretch of the election year, with more heat than light generated in any particular 24-7 news cycle. We would do well to remember that negative campaigning is not a useful tool for making the No. 1 hiring decision.
Effective executives, Drucker insists, “do not start out by looking at weaknesses. You can only build on strengths. Both Marshall and Sloan were highly demanding men, but both knew that what matters is the ability to do the assignment. If that exists, the company can always supply the rest. If it does not exist, the rest is useless.”
That “company” is us. On Nov. 6, the hiring decision is ours.
Let’s not screw it up.
J.F. McKenna is a business journalist, communications specialist and former editor of Tooling & Production magazine. Reach him at email@example.com .