Style and Substance

By Scott Westerman
On a recent trip to the Left Coast, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a friend who is a successful Hollywood actor. He had just completed a project where he portrayed a corporate executive. Having spent considerable time in that role in real life, I was fascinated to hear about his experience.

“What did you like most about the gig?” I asked.

“I got to wear expensive clothes, drive an expensive car and make a lot of profound business statements,” he answered, “without having any responsibility for doing the real work.”

That one totally resonated with me as we enter another presidential campaign cycle. The people who want to be lead our nation are really good at saying what they will do if they get the job. What’s often missing in the debates and attack ads are the details on how they will do it.

I remember sitting in on a painful budget review, where one of my colleagues was pitching his business plan to the top brass. He had all the right bullet points on his slides.

We will grow revenue.
We will decrease expenses.
We will increase customer satisfaction.
We will improve employee morale.

Things began to get uncomfortable when the leadership team began to ask some questions. How will you grow revenue when your numbers show that your market share is peaking? How can you cut expenses and, at the same time, improve both customer satisfaction and employee morale?

A bit deeper dive revealed that, compared to his peers, this person’s results were mostly the driven by accounting tricks and bent rules. He moved expenses from the end of one quarter into the beginning of the next to show an improvement in year-over-year cash flow. He defunded a quality improvement initiative and dismantled a training program that created a pipeline of fresh talent. He took shortcuts on maintenance and removed costly back-up systems that made his operation vulnerable to catastrophic failure. And a careful look back over his career revealed that he stayed around just long enough to give the impression of improvement, talking his way into a promotion, and leaving a mess for his successor to clean up.

My experience in the shark tank taught me to be skeptical of anyone who promised an easy fix to a complicated situation. Problems can never be solved with a sound byte. Reaching an important objective is often a circuitous road, fraught with risk, disagreeable choices and short term pain that are essential to any solution that is built to last.

“Easier said than done,” is a cliche that stands the test of time. Whether you are considering your candidate of choice, a new hire or any sales pitch, look beyond seductive promises that are easily made and much harder to deliver. Distrust oversimplification. Question everything.

And before you buy anything, be sure you know exactly what you’re getting.