Dr. Thomas D. Zweifel
Richard: On behalf of Paramount Business Jets and myself I would like to say thank you so much for all your support and sound advice over the years. It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to work with you. Thomas: Thank you, my pleasure, and likewise. You know, you are a master of appreciation and acknowledgment. Did you learn that in my leadership course? (Laughs) Richard: It is very much possible sir. It was rather serendipitous how I ended up in your leadership class at Columbia University, at the right time, at the right place with the right professor. You gave me the tools to be better prepared to meet the future and to overcome challenges for many years to come. Please tell us a little about yourself and your current ventures. Thomas: Of course. After 30 years in management and consulting, I now have the great privilege of not having to work anymore. Since I love my work of helping clients align on a vision and strategy and then provide what’s missing for implementation, I still do it, but now I can cherry-pick those clients where my intervention is highest-leverage. I currently work with several of the largest Swiss banks and the Swiss government. My highest-leverage client is the CEO of a family-owned multi-billion-dollar company with 10,000+ employees who are committed to leading his company into a future of global competition and technological innovation. Virtually nobody in the company even knows I coach their CEO. It’s a great privilege and a heavy responsibility to know that each of our conversations will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people, customers and alliance partners. What I love the most (other than my family of course) is writing books, finding a language that really gives my readers access to thinking and acting differently. And since people read rather less today, I am doing quite a bit of work with TV and video. I also have the opportunity to teach, at Columbia University and St. Gallen University. That way I can pay it forward to the next generation. In fact, you are one of my proudest achievements as a professor: After conceiving the business idea for Paramount Business Jets you developed the strategy in the Columbia University leadership class, and now you are on Inc. magazine’s list of 500 fastest-growing companies. Since 2001 I have had over 2,000 students who, like you, built their vision and strategy, and jump-started them in 100-day Catalytic Projects. Of course, not every student enjoyed the success you did, but many, many emerging leaders went on to make a tremendous difference in their organizations and societies. This is tremendously gratifying to me. Richard: What are some of the major challenges leaders face today?
Thomas: A myriad of challenges. Let me just mention the top five for now:
- How to build strategic alignment across organizational silos, across all levels of the organizational hierarchy, how to overcome the pushback against change, maximize buy-in and mobilize people for their vision and strategy.
- How to breed top leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit who stay loyal to the firm.
- How to inspire people and give them meaning in the jungle of the day-to-day.
- How to institutionalize listening across all levels so that innovation is happening and market intelligence from the customer gets to the boardroom.
- How to navigate culture clashes and build a truly global culture where differences are not obstacles but assets.
Richard: What is the difference between a great leader and a not so great leader? Thomas: A great leader knows him- or herself. As William Penn put it already in the 18th century, “A man who cannot command himself is not fit to command others.” A great leader surrounds him- or herself with people who have the courage to dissent, not just with people who think he or she is great. A great leader leads leaders, not followers. A great leader listens and asks the right questions that open up a world, instead of just giving answers. A great leader co-creates a shared vision that provides meaning in daily management. Finally and perhaps most importantly, a great leader (look at Churchill or Gandhi) is able to take any breakdown, any obstacle, any adversity, and turn it into a breakthrough.
Richard: How much should a leader lead top-down (hard, control, hierarchy, pushing people to produce, etc.) and how much freedom should he or she give people to lead and decide themselves (soft, participatory, democratic, co-leadership)? Which gets better performance?
Thomas: This is actually another skill of a great leader: being able to see what will most empower another. You cannot generalize that. Some people need supervision and you need to be quite directive with them. Others (like me) need a lot of autonomy. But in my view, everybody needs management by objectives: to be accountable for measurable outcomes. You could even ask the person, “Now that you have your objectives, what do you need from me to be successful? How often do you want to check-in?” Then you see how they do in the action. If someone is hiding out, you can call them on it and fine-tune the empowerment accordingly. I guess it’s clear from my answer that I don’t see a dichotomy between “soft” and “hard” — it’s more like a continuum, and it’s situational. Keep looking for what works. As my doctoral advisor, Adam Przeworski put it, “Theories are not to be believed. Theories are to be used.” Richard: How does a leader develop a winning strategy?
Thomas: Ah, that’s simple: He or she follows the approach in my book “Strategy-In-Action.” (Laughs) Seriously, the leader needs to get enough of the right stakeholders, representing all sectors and all levels of the company, perhaps even key customers and suppliers and alliance partners, into a room, lock the door and say, “We are not leaving here until we are aligned on our vision and strategy.” Then you build alignment: a shared understanding, a shared vision, and strategy. Then you create what I call a “Reverse Roadmap” that bridges the future back to the present. Now comes the critical piece that connects strategy design and implementation: You design and launch 100-day Catalytic Projects (like the one you did for Paramount Business Jets) that in a microcosm already express the future now. These Catalytic Projects serve as a laboratory of action that allows you to test your strategy at low cost and low risk. If they succeed, you can scale them up and standardize the best practices. If not, you haven’t sunk the whole boat. You have learned what works and what doesn’t. Catalytic Projects might focus on any breakthrough you can produce in 100 days, they could focus on one small market segment or develop a prototype to bring to market. I came upon the concept of Catalytic Project based on a quote from Gandhi: “Be today the change you wish for in the world.” Richard: How do busy leaders best manage their time or their scarcity of time? Thomas: First of all, it depends on where you stand and how you look at time. Since Einstein, we know that time is not an absolute quantity but relative. If you see time as a scarce commodity (and we tend to see virtually everything valuable as scarce, including sleep, love, or money), you are already on the defensive. Time is really just another dimension on the game board, it is malleable, and you can take charge of it. If you experience a scarcity of time or overwhelm, it means you are simply not focusing on your top priority. There are many tools for this, but the most important and simplest is this: Begin each day not by opening the mail, which would make you a pinball of the circumstances — the opposite of leadership. Begin each day by producing a sizable accomplishment in your top priority. For example, your top priority each day might be to reach out to a client or write one page of your book. At the end of each day, decide on the top priority for the next day and schedule yourself to begin the day with the highest-leverage action. These two simple practices are at the source of all my accomplishments.