Forced Collaboration

Larry Bossidy has the cover story in HBR this month about what leaders expect of you and what you should expect of leaders. Bossidy wrote the book, Execution, with Ram Charan. He is a former exec, and his style is very simple and direct, which is an interesting change of pace from an otherwise academic magazine. But in doing so, he does leave some things unexplained.

For example, one of the things he expects from his direct reports is “be willing to collaborate.” He gives an example from his work history:

Some years ago I was running a big business that was functionally structured. The person who ran manufacturing and the one who ran marketing and sales did not get along well; they just wouldn’t communicate. And because they didn’t work together well, neither did their organizations. As a consequence, our inventories were always out of balance.

I like the example so far, because it illustrates what I have been saying for years: if you don’t handle the basic human, relationship issues among leaders, it has negative effects on organizational performance and the bottom line. But listen to what he says about the solution to the problem:

The three of us met, and I told them that it didn’t matter whether they liked each other or not, but the way they worked together had to change [good point]. They left the meeting with instructions to overcome their differences, but three months later, nothing had changed.

Now here’s where I want more of the story. The way he describes it, I’m not surprised. He calls them into the office and orders them to get along better. Of course nothing will change. Now listen to the next level of intervention:

I called them back into my office and gave them both separation packages on the spot, telling them that although I thought they were good performers individually, their failure to collaborate was hurting the enterprise. An imposing guard was waiting at the door to take their badges and escort them from the plant. At about 3:00 that afternoon the telephone rang. It was the two of them, asking to gain entrance to the plant. The first thing they said upon arrival was “We get it.” They came back to work, and I don’t know that they ever learned to like each other, but they learned to work well together—and more important, so did their organizations. Our overall performance improved considerably.

I have a couple of reactions. First, I like that he is willing to fire people for their failure to collaborate. This kind of clarity about what drives success is so rare, as is the discipline to stand behind the clarity when it comes to who you hire and fire.

On the other hand, it is a “motivate by fear” model that I don’t think works in the long term. Even the improvement that he got in this case—if those two were collaborating just to save their jobs, I would imagine they’re only doing the bare minimum. There may have been potential lost by taking the “tell them what to do and if they don’t do it fire them” approach.