August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

It's Not What We Think but How We Think: 3 Leadership Lessons from the IBM Executive School

About a year after we started our company an ice storm shut down the city. Yet despite some hilarious misadventures that were quickly embedded into our corporate mythos, we all made it to work.  Three days later I ran into a friend at the gym who worked for the state of North Carolina. Surprised to see him during business hours, he told me that state employees were still off for the ice storm.

“I don’t get it.” I blurted forgetting my manners. “You can’t get to work but you get to the gym?  We worked right through the ice storm.”

“You don’t care about your people,” he retorted obviously stung.

“No,” I said, “We care very deeply about our people. We just call them customers.”

Success is 20% knowledge and 80% behavior, and one of the most challenging tasks of leadership is turning intellectual knowledge into habitual behavior. The problem with lectures and seminars is that they usually teach us things we already assume we are doing.  As Samuel Johnson wryly said, “Common sense is the only thing in oversupply since we all assume we have more than we need.”

For example, focusing on customers rather than products, technologies, or even profits is practically a business mantra. Yet it is rarely practiced.  Why?  It is not because the idea needs more intellectual converts.  It is because we all assume we are already customer focused.

In 1956 Louis R. Mobley was floundering as the founder of the IBM Executive School until desperation drove him to three revolutionary insights.

The first is that great leaders don’t have different skills and knowledge. Great leaders have different values and attitudes.  Focusing on customers is not a skill we learn.  It is a world view we must become and internalize. Turning managers into executives is not an evolutionary process brought about by piling on more knowledge.  It’s a transformational process more akin to turning caterpillars into butterflies: a process Mobley called “a radical revolution in consciousness.”  Mobley’s secret to success lies in how we think not what we think. Great leaders don’t know different things. They think in utterly different ways.

Mobley’s second great insight was that transforming people starts with what a salesman would call “developing felt need.” We only get hungry for change when we are dramatically exposed to our limitations in thinking and outlook.  An old sales adage says, “You gotta’ give him a headache before you can sell him an aspirin.” When I asked Mobley for the mission of the IBM Executive School he simply said, “To blow minds.  Job one was convincing IBM’s best and brightest that everything they thought they knew was wrong.”

The IBM Executive School became an unlearning rather than a learning experience.  It was about undoing all the self limiting, implicit, unconscious, and unwarranted assumptions that block success.  The IBM executives were treated to a series of jolts, shocks, epiphanies, eurekas, and “wow” experiences:  Experiences designed to break down the self imposed walls that keep us from approaching the world with child-like eyes, a creative outlook, and a fresh set of questions.

Mobley’s third insight was that traditional educational techniques are powerless to bring about this revolution in consciousness. Trying to change attitudes, values, and world views through lecturing was one of the few things that provoked my mild mannered Georgian mentor to abject apoplexy.

“You know where podiums come from?” He would roar. “In the Middle Ages, the only person in the village who could read was the minister. He’d prop the bible on a podium and read to the peasants. Five hundred years later we’re still leaning on podiums and lecturing highly educated people. It’s worse than useless. It’s counterproductive.”

For Mobley the old model of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them, and  test them to make sure they were listening” was not only useless for getting people outside the box, it created all the damn boxes in the first place.

Mobley banished teachers, podiums, text books, and tests.  Instead like a Zen master or whirling dervish he and his staff facilitated simulations, games, and riddles designed to wrench IBM executives out of their comfort zone.  The IBM Executive School became an exercise in educational mayhem and controlled chaos where the bulk of the learning came through the osmosis of peer to peer interaction.

The results of these innovations were breathtaking.  Participants became so motivated that they barely slept, and as Mobley’s school rapidly began running itself he and his staff were hard pressed to just keep up.

One of the great things about business is accountability. Mobley’s insights are not the stuff of theory and ivory towers.  He ran the IBM Executive School for ten years, and was able to watch his graduates turn IBM into the most admired and successful corporation in the world during the 1960s and 1970s.

In my present incarnation as a speaker, seminar leader, and consultant I take Mobley’s insights to heart.   Rather than talk “at” people I use experiential methodologies consisting of real life riddles, games, and simulations drawn from my own career.  Rather than merely telling people what I “learned” living with Mobley and his family, like a good golf pro, I labor to help others “feel the swing” of my own revolution in consciousness. Rather than provide “answers” I challenge others to create their own answers by asking different questions in new and exciting ways.

And whenever someone says, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before!” I feel like I’ve made another tiny down payment on the infinite debt I owe Lou Mobley.

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