What Are You Going to Do About It?

Years ago, Drucker was giving one of his all-day seminars. I think it was called, "A Day with Drucker." During the Q&A period a clearly distressed individual launched into a long monologue about the challenges he faced in his company. They appeared insurmountable. It was obvious that he expected Drucker to solve his problems and tell him what to do. At first, Drucker listened politely. Finally, he interrupted. "OK," Drucker said. "So you’re in trouble. What are you going to do about it?"

Bailing Out the Automotive Industry

We are currently challenged by some very rough economic times. The CEOs of the three largest U.S. automobile companies flew to Washington, D.C. in their private jets to testify before Congress and ask for a multi-billion dollar bailout. These leaders claimed that unless Congress helped out, many employees would be laid off.

However, the bailout of the automotive industry was already controversial. The day before, The Los Angeles Times reported that one senator said, "Look I’ve heard from my constituents. They are very much against this. One is the employee of a foreign automobile company that manufactures cars in the United States. He told me that he makes $40 an hour. He also informed me that the average employee's salary at the ‘Big Three’ is almost twice that. He wanted to know why we should you use his money so those employees can make twice what he does for doing the same job. This worker is right. These employees are in trouble due to their own mismanagement. All companies are hurting because people aren’t buying their products. These companies are also in trouble and must take action to do whatever they need to get profitable given these economic conditions that we all face."

Someone pointed out that each of these three automotive CEOs, all from the same city, had flown to Washington, D.C. in their private corporate jets, costing each company about $20,000. The leaders didn’t consider flying commercial, much less economy class. They didn’t even think about flying in together on a single airplane.

Now, many companies have corporate jets. Normally private jets can save time and money by getting the executives where they need to be quickly and efficiently and helping them do a better job. But the automotive leaders were asking the government for a $56 billion dollar bailout! As one congressman said, "Somebody said they’re handing out free money in Washington, and these three came to get it." Flying to Washington in their own corporate jets was a clear signal these leaders could envision nothing but business as usual." The economic situation wasn’t their fault, so somebody else should pick up the tab. These leaders would be perfectly happy to make some minor changes in production of vehicles, etc. and press on doing everything just like always—at the taxpayers’ expense, of course. And when that money ran out they could return for more money from Uncle Sam.

Drucker on Executive Responsibility

Drucker would have told the three automotive CEOs, "OK, so you’re in trouble. Sure, it’s the economy. You can’t change that. What are you going to do about it?" My point is not whether or not the three leaders should have been given the money that they eventually received when the bailout was reconsidered. (At least the second time around they had the good sense to drive to Washington!) But many wondered whether they had learned their lesson or whether it was just for show.

Drucker warned years ago that this was going to happen. He said the outlandish executive salaries and the unions continually demanding more benefits without an increase in productivity would eventually cause executives, workers and the nation to pay a terrible price.

So here we are. Now what do we do? Drucker’s point is that we are ourselves responsible and cannot rely on someone else to give us the magic solution for our problems. However, some of Drucker’s principles can guide us:

  1. Take charge and decide what you are going to do next. No matter how much you wish, you can’t wish the thing away. So accept it and move on. This is true whether you are the CEO in charge, a manager who is trying to hold his or her unit together or someone who has just been laid off. Back in the 1980s, someone put poison in Tylenol, then the number one pain reliever. James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, the firm that makes Tylenol, accepted full responsibility. Burke didn’t say, "It’s not our fault." He took responsibility, took charge and pulled the product off the market and told customers not to buy Tylenol until he designed a tamper-proof package. It cost the company millions of dollars. Then he re-introduced the product. All the experts said that it couldn’t be done. Even The Wall Street Journal said that it wasn’t Johnson & Johnson’s fault, but that there was no way that the product could be resurrected. But Burke took charge, and without depending on what anyone outside the company did or thought, he returned Tylenol to its former preeminent position.
  2. Even under the worst conditions, you have resources, advantages and strengths. Write these down. No matter who you are or what your situation, others have been there before and overcome their problems. Do a little searching on the Internet and find out how they did it. Others have done "the impossible," so can you. Lance Armstrong was an up-and-coming cycler who was told that he had a form of cancer that would kill him. Even if he survived he was told he wouldn’t be able to walk again, much less ride a bicycle. Competing in a race was out of the question. Yet Armstrong did and went on to win the top cycling race, the Tour de France, not once, but a record seven times. I read that this year he is going to race again. It doesn’t really make any difference whether he wins or not. He has already proven that we all have resources to overcome a situation. You are in an impossible situation. What are your resources?
  3. Develop a plan. Decide where you want to go and work out a detailed short-term and long-term plan to get there from where you are. Billionaire Tony Robbins was dead broke and living in an apartment that didn’t even have a kitchen. However, it had a bathtub, and that’s where Robbins washed his dishes. Robbins had no college degree and no one that could support him while he struggled to stay alive. Then he lost his job. Robbins decided what he was going to do and wrote down a plan as to how he was going to get there. It didn’t take long until he became both wealthy and world famous as the pre-eminent motivational speaker in the world, consulted by kings and heads of state world-wide.
  4. Work your plan. Nothing happens until you take action, so do it! The ancient Chinese seer Lao Tzu said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Take that first step! Mary Kay Ash, who founded the billion-dollar Mary Kay Cosmetics Company, started her company with $5,000 and no income. Until she had a positive cash flow, she intended to rely on her husband’s salary. Two weeks before she was scheduled to open, her husband died of a massive heart attack. Her planned source of cash flow during this critical period disappeared. But she followed through with her business anyway. She got her saleswomen together and told them how they were going to implement her plan, and they went out and founded a billion-dollar company.

I’m told that more people became millionaires during the Great Depression than ever before. This is true, but it is misleading. Most in this category became millionaires because of the demand that came with the onset of World War II. However, disregarding those companies helped by the war, there were many who survived and prospered during the Great Depression. Smart companies like Proctor and Gamble actually increased their advertising and took advantage of a new medium, radio, much as Barack Obama took advantage of cell phones and YouTube in the presidential elections. Drucker knew well: Extraordinary leaders are successful because they do things that ordinary leaders won’t.