The Question of Edge

In GE, during the time of Jack Welch, there used to be what were called, ‘The 4 – Es’ of GE Leadership: Energy, Energizer, Edge, Execute. We taught this in Crotonville and focused on them in every GE Leadership Course that we taught anywhere in the world.

The values statement of GE read:

All of us…always with unyielding integrity… Are passionately focused on driving customer success. Live Six Sigma Quality…ensure that the customer is always its first beneficiary…and use it to accelerate growth. Insist on excellence and are intolerant of bureaucracy. Act in a boundaryless fashion…always search for and apply the best ideas regardless of their source. Prize global intellectual capital and the people that provide it…build diverse teams to maximize it. See change for the growth opportunities it brings…e.g., “e-Business”. Create a clear, simple, customer-centered vision…and continually renew and refresh its execution. Create an environment of “stretch,” excitement, informality and trust…reward improvements…and celebrate results. Demonstrate…always with infectious enthusiasm for the customer…the “4-E’s” of GE leadership: the personal Energy to welcome and deal with the speed of change…the ability to create an atmosphere that Energizes others…the Edge to make difficult decisions…and the ability to consistently Execute

I have highlighted the statement in line 4: because I am a beneficiary of that value as it is lived in GE. This is just to underline one simple fact: GE’s success doesn’t depend on what the values say (there are plenty of people in the world who talk about the same things); it depends on the fact that in GE, people live these values.

In GE, the values are not something framed to be hung on the wall of the Chairman’s office. They are daily topics of conversation, they are commonly used nomenclature, they are things that people practice, hold themselves up to, feel empowered and ennobled by and actively demonstrate.

Take the line that I highlighted. How is this lived? Let me describe my first interaction when I went to GE Corporate University at Crotonville for the first time in 1997. I landed in New York and took my suitcase off the belt only to discover that it had been vandalized. My experience with Delta is another story which I won’t go into here – but what do I see as soon as I go outside – a chauffeur with a limousine asking me to hand over my suitcase so that he can carry it to the car. I ask myself, ‘Hello! Did you get off at the right stop? This is New York? People don’t carry anyone’s baggage in New York. So what’s this?’

Anyway, I get into the car – Continental – and off we go. As we near Crotonville – a good while later (JFK to White Plains is not exactly next door), the chauffeur calls Crotonville reception on the car phone (no mobile phones in those days) and gives them our location. As the car drives up, I am received by a young lady at the foot of the flight of stairs leading to the reception. I simply sign on the check-in card and 10 seconds later the lady escorts me to my room – a huge luxurious place with a fabulous bathroom – everything in America is king-size to an Indian – shows me around the room and says, ‘Mr. Baig, the telephone is a direct line with complementary international access. You are welcome to use it to call anyone in the world.’ The fact that I made only one call is another story.

Next day when I go to class, the Course Coordinator, my good friend, Carla Fisher is with me. Takes me to the class. Is there to meet me at the interval to take me to the Crotonville dining hall (refurbished at a cost of $ 2 million in 1996) and then back to the class. I said to her, ‘Carla you need not do this. I know my way around and am perfectly happy going to eat and so on, on my own. You need not take the time out to escort me.’ She says to me, ‘Yawar, it is a pleasure to be with you. But even if it wasn’t, I have no choice. This is how we treat people with knowledge. It is a part of our values.’

That sums it up for me: the issue of living by the values that one espouses. Credibility falls through the gap between what is espoused and what is practiced. Until one is prepared to live by one’s espoused values, one will never be respected for them. There are far too many people who claim to have many lofty values but you don’t see any sign of them in their lives. Values are therefore only as good as practiced. Nothing more. Nothing less.

So why the title of this essay about ‘Edge’. It is because of the definition of ‘Edge’ – the willingness to take hard decisions. To live by one’s values is very often a hard decision. It is much easier to succumb, to compromise. But only when one decides to take the difficult path, does one feel the pleasant cool breeze on one’s face. To enjoy the coolness of the breeze, it is necessary first to sweat.

I believe that this is the key to success. Be it in business or society or personal life. It is the willingness to take hard decisions that spells the difference between success and doom. Hard decisions about yourself, your career, your family members, your team, your choices about any issue and your focus and strategy. Organizations or people don’t go down because of one bad decision. They go down because of insistence on that bad decision which leads to multiple bad decisions – only, that those are now taken by people who have deliberately decided to blind themselves to the consequences of their bad decision making. Ignoring reality only ensures that you perish – because reality doesn’t change for those who choose to ignore it.

In my consulting practice in Family Businesses, I have seen the sad results of lack of Edge, over and over, when families fail to take hard decisions when it comes to the entry, exit or behavior of family members – because they are family members. It is amazing how they don’t see that if one doesn’t stop the one making a hole in the side of the ship, the whole ship will sink. But they don’t and it does.

All great enterprises succeed for three reasons: I have added one of my own.

1. Unyielding integrity in living the values
2. The Edge to take hard decisions
3. Demonstrated willingness to invest time, money, energy and resources in the pursuit of a vision that spans generations.

Let me elaborate my understanding of these from the many histories of great enterprise that I have studied and also personally experienced.

1. Unyielding integrity in living the values

The key word here is ‘unyielding’. The ones who succeed are the ones who refuse to yield to any amount of pressure, logical reasoning, emotional blackmail, any kind of persuasion, personal considerations, changed circumstances and so on. They are those who have espoused the values after deep deliberation, serious consideration and soul searching to find complete acceptance. Only then do they consciously espouse the values. They are not those who sign on after listening to a fiery speech or emotional appeal. They are not those who claim to espouse those values, ‘Because they are the values of GE or Sony or The Constitution or anything else.’ They are those who espouse and commit to those values because they are their own. These are people who give thought to what they are espousing before they espouse them – because they are keenly aware of what espousing means, what they will need to commit to, what it will cost and how it will benefit them. They consciously espouse those values because in their estimation, the benefit far outclasses the cost and is worth all that it will take to live by it.

For some it is money. For others the goal may be social, political or spiritual. The rule is the same: you need to commit to the values and live by them with unyielding integrity. They are your values, you chose to be defined by them, you stand for them, you will be remembered by them and so you are willing to do whatever it takes to demonstrate them to a level of excellence. Interestingly the actual values don’t matter to success. It is their practice which decides whether you succeed or not. Those who win are not those with the best values. They are those who best practice their espoused values.

Let me assure you that there will be many who will argue against this. They will call you rigid – unyielding means rigid, see? They will call you unreasonable – all progress depends on being unreasonable, because the reasonable adapt to the situation, while the unreasonable try to change the situation. They will call you crazy – but it is only those who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, who do.

So let them bleat – all sheep do. Leadership means to like your own company. The tiger walks alone. Sheep have plenty of company. So make your choice. Consider it carefully. Then commit.

2. The Edge to take hard decisions

GE’s success story under Jack Welch was rooted in Edge. The Edge to take the decision to be # 1 or # 2 in any business that they were in or sell and get out. Just ask yourself, for most of the world, being # 3 globally in a business is not only okay, it is brilliant, fantastic, something you write home about, something you put on your website and brochure – ‘We are # 3 globally in this business.’ But not to GE under Welch. For GE under Welch, being # 3 was the death knell – it meant that you were going to be sold. And you were sold. Even if you were his aunt’s son in law. That was not because he loved you less but because he loved GE more. Edge in GE meant the famous GE Workout. The decision making tool that Welch taught us all: where the CEO was put on the spot and could only say one of three things:

1. Yes.
2. No – giving reasons.
3. Get me more information.

No waiting, no procrastinating, no delaying – no next week, next month, next lifetime. If you wanted to remain the CEO, you had to take a decision. There are a huge number of transformational success stories about the effect of GE Workout and those of us who taught it, did so with full belief in it and commitment to it based on visible results. As I mentioned earlier, I have seen the result of Edge or the lack of it in my consulting practice in the many years since my first Crotonville visit in 1997, across boundaries of nationality, culture and geography. The principle holds true completely.

Edge is to be able to do two things:

1. Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus (Collin & Porras’s term)
2. Keep driving

Right and wrong people

Who are the ‘right’ people and who are the ‘wrong’ people? The right people are those who believe in the values and practice them with unyielding integrity. They practice them and this is visible in their lives, not because someone is watching. But because the values define them. They do it not because it is good to do but because their values are who they are. The wrong people are those who got onto the bus because they liked the shape or color of the bus. They had no idea where it was going. They just got on because it looked good. So what must you do with them? Stop the bus and ask them to get off. That is Edge.

Great enterprises happen because of players. Not because of passengers. Passengers are deadweight. They are shackles on your ankles, millstones around your neck. They will drag you to the bottom, sap your energy, dampen your enthusiasm and assure you a fate that in the evening of your life, you will gaze back at the road you travelled, with pathetic and futile tears running down your cheeks – at what could have been if only you’d had Edge. You will know then that the reason it didn’t happen was not fate or the stars or anything else. The reason was you, yourself. You had no Edge. Not for nothing do I say, ‘If only’ is the saddest phrase in any language, because only those who have lost it all, are forced to say it. It means that your life is over, even if you remain alive.

Remember that it is kindness to stop the bus and get the wrong people off. It is not kindness to keep them on, leading them to a destination they never wanted to go to in the first place. There is nothing to be hesitant about doing this. No great enterprise happens because of one man or woman. It happens because of those who followed the leader. So it is essential for the leader to ensure that he or she has the right followers. Great leadership is a followership issue.

Keep driving

Once you have the right people on the bus, keep driving. It is an inevitable rule that the right road leads to the right destination. And right people ensure that you remain on the right road. That is the reason to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. With the right people there is no confusion. There is no noise in the system to distract you and take the pleasure out of the tune. With the right people you know that no matter who takes the wheel he or she will keep the bus on the right road and will not swerve off into some nice looking deviation. With the right people you know that you don’t have to worry about who will get off to change the wheel or fill gas or anything else that the bus needs to keep going. With the right people you know that you don’t have to ask anyone to do anything. Right people know what to do and do it unasked.

So ask yourself, ‘Do you have the right people on your bus?’ And even more importantly, ‘Are you the ‘Right Person’ for the bus you are on? If not, do yourself a favor – get off. Get off right now.

Keep driving because worthwhile destinations have a way of being far away. Satisfaction is directly proportional to difficulty. But with the right people you will enjoy the drive. It is very necessary to enjoy the drive, to take pleasure in the journey and not wait until you arrive at the destination. The pleasure in the journey is a factor of the company you are traveling in. So once you have the right people on the bus enjoy the drive and keep driving. To arrive at the destination is inevitable. Right people ensure that you go to the right destination. Winning is a habit. So is losing. So choose right or choose to lose.

3. Demonstrated willingness to invest time, money, energy and all resources in the pursuit of a vision that spans generations.

The key word is ‘demonstrated’. You can talk till the cows come home – but until you show it, it doesn’t count. All great enterprises succeed or fail for one reason only; lack of sufficient investment.

That is the reason to have an unyielding commitment to live the values and to have the right people on your bus. Only then will you be assured of the investment that you need in order to succeed. It is essential that those directly involved in the enterprise – those who are on the bus – invest personally, demonstrably and visibly. That is the proof that they are the right people. If they don’t, they should get off the bus. Investment is where the rubber meets the road. Investment is to walk the talk. Investment is what brings other right people on board because people listen with their eyes and are drawn to others who they resonate with; share values with; feel good in the company of.

Investment as I mentioned, is in terms of time, energy, money and in every way that is necessary for the enterprise to succeed. To invest means to put the enterprise and its demands over and above everything else. I mean ‘everything’ in a very literal sense. There is no ‘work-life balance’ with those who eventually succeed in great enterprises. For them, their goal is life. For them and all those who are with them – including and most importantly – their families. There is no great enterprise that I know of which was done in anyone’s spare time or on weekends. All great enterprises demand full time, 24×7 commitment to the exclusion of everything else. You need to walk, talk, think, sleep and dream the goal. You need to do this and find meaning, rest, entertainment, enjoyment and fulfillment in it. It must be something you do when you are paid for it, something you will gladly do free and something that you will pay to do. It must be your legacy. It must be your contribution to life. It must be the reason you live, the reason you die and the reason you are remembered.
All great enterprises also demand that those involved in their founding personally invest significantly in them. Significantly not in terms of the absolute monetary value but the relative value in terms of the individual’s own wealth. So the investment may look small in terms of itself but may represent the individual’s total wealth in the world. That is what makes it significant. It represents the investment which the person is making in terms of how important that person considers the investment – that he puts all he has into it. He doesn’t need encouragement. He is convinced. So he invests. People engaged in great enterprises don’t know the word ‘sacrifice’. They know the word ‘investment’. They are so convinced of the value of the return that they consider it a great opportunity for reward. Others may think that what they are doing is sacrifice. But they do it because for them there is nothing better to do than that.

Investment, as I mentioned, is not only in terms of money, though that is a very significant part of it. Investment is also in terms of time, energy and thought-share all of which are essential for the enterprise to succeed. Investment is also in inspiring and energizing others. Investment is in transferring your dream into their hearts. In making them dream your dream. People engaged in great enterprise are able to do this not because of amazing oratorical skills but because passion is infectious and sincerity is transparent. Hearts speak to hearts and words are immaterial. Without sincerity and passion, no dream can be transferred into the hearts of others.

Investment is in building teams. In spending the time to train others, to support them, to have patience with them and also when required, to part company with those who simply are not going to succeed. All this investment becomes possible for one reason only – and that is – the goal is worth every minute, moment and measure of it. Only when the achievement of the goal is seen as worthy of the effort that it will take to achieve it, does the effort become possible. It is that shining vision in the distance that enables all the difficulties of the path, to pale into insignificance. It is the glow of the vision that lights the dark lonely road in the depth of the night when hope is at a low ebb and fears raise their heads in the darkness. It is the taste of the sweetness of the vision in the mouth that wipes out the bitterness of hard labor and defeat after defeat. It is the pull of the vision that lifts me up every time I fall – again and again.

It is written in the laws of nature, that they will not be changed for anyone. As long as one fulfills their conditions, they produce the same return time after time without change. The difference between free flight and free fall is in the landing. Not in the speed with which the flyer moves through the air. It is the law of gravity which spells the ending – the same one every time. Success, like gravity, is a law of nature. Those who know how it works, achieve it every time. Like the smooth landing of the one who knows how to fly.

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