Overcoming complexity and the energy vampires

Founder's Mentality - Energy vampiresAs we’ve noted before, the “twin mission” of deriving benefits from scale and scope while retaining a sense of Founder’s MentalitySM applies to both companies and to individual leaders. The leader must create a team with an owner mindset while also making interactions with the mother ship a net positive.

As we talk to leaders about how they free up time to focus on this dual mission, two common themes are emerging: the need to simplify and the incredible importance of energy. Let’s look at each:

Simplify! Simplify!

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau argued that we must “Simplify, simplify”—to which his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly responded, “I think one ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.”

We often hear leaders affirm that their first step is to simplify. Here’s how a global personal-care products company leader describes it: “I have two missions. One is to create a team that is committed to changing the world, and the other is to make sure that the rest of the organization helps them. That’s pretty simple, but I started realizing how many of my activities had nothing to do with either of those,” the leader said. “So I sat down with my assistant and gave her a list of people and activities that would help with the two missions, trying to keep it as short as possible. Then I told her to say ‘no’ to everything else for the next month and see who screamed. And you know what? Only a few folks screamed, and about half of the ones who did were right—they should have been on the short list. But the majority of those activities just went away. And now I’m ruthless about asking myself if an activity will help me achieve my missions before I say ‘yes.’”

Sandy Ogg, a senior operating partner at Blackstone and formerly the head of human resources for Motorola and Unilever, says he does the same thing. He has come up with something he calls “The Expansion into Other Peoples’ Jobs Theory.” Let Sandy describe it: “Every time I take on a new job in a company, I spend a couple of months telling people what I don’t do,” he says. “When people come into my office arguing that I should be involved with hundreds of irrelevant issues, I just tell them, ‘Nope, that’s not what I do.’ And they go away; I never hear from them again. So this is my theory: Every time you say  ‘yes’ to an activity, you’re defining someone else’s job. They now say, ‘Well, my job involves getting Sandy involved with this and that.’ And every time you say ‘no’ to an activity, you’re also defining someone else’s job. They now say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I guess I can just get on and do this myself!’ The more you are a nice guy, the more you’re expanding your role in other people’s jobs.”

That’s theme one. It is amazing how many activities people will take on that don’t serve their missions.

The energy vampires

In addition to simplifying their roles and focusing on the essential, leaders also talk about the need to win the battle for energy. This was a major theme of our work on “Resolving the CEO’s Dilemma,” when one CEO noted how difficult it was for him to do his job of simplifying when he was tired. “For me, the job has become a battle for energy. I can only do my job if I have energy at the end of the day, so I’ve become a lot more selfish about preserving that energy,” he said.

The “energy vampire” is one of the first casualties when a CEO realizes that the job is all about energy. We all know who the energy vampires are: It’s those people who, when their names comes up on your phone, makes you stop and think, Do I have the energy to take this call? It means those people have demonstrated repeatedly that they will suck the life out of you in every interaction.

Companies are filled with energy vampires. They send out a lot of templates. They schedule lots of meetings. They exercise pocket vetoes on key decisions, and stop action with their requests for one more round of analytics. They wait at the other end of email, ready to fire off missives that force your people to stop serving the customer and instead respond to yet another information request. Why do we tolerate energy vampires in our companies? Why is it acceptable to be a net drain on the energies of others?

This is the only advice from Bain I have brought home to my kids: “If you have a reputation of giving energy in every interaction, the world will forgive almost any incompetence. In contrast, if you are an energy vampire, you’d better be a genius, because the world will quickly lose patience with you.” I think there are far too many energy vampires running around major companies who are unfortunately not geniuses.

In achieving the dual goals of the leader—to create a team that takes on the world and to help them make their actions scalable—you need to rid your calendar of distracting activities and your organization of energy vampires.

You owe it yourself. You owe it to your people.

This entry was posted in The paths to Great Repeatable Models by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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