Some bosses seem to be idea machines. Steve Jobs comes to mind, as does Elon Musk. Ted Rogers was like that, according to Phil Lind, who has titled his book on their four decades together Right Hand Man. And the experience wasn’t always wonderful.
“It’s tough, tough to work for a man who has a million ideas and never takes no for an answer,” Mr. Lind said in an interview.
Ideas are vital – an important asset of any organization, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says. He wants a continual stream of them. But somebody has to prioritize them, and often, it’s not the idea machine at the top.
“I became an Abominable No-man,” Mr. Lind says.
“A guy like Ted or Musk or Jobs has one or two screws loose in terms of being a regular person. But they’re a genius. A lot of people say yes all the time [to them]. But I was the guy who said no a lot.”
I was in the same position working for Neil Reynolds, a legendary Canadian newspaper editor. He could come up with ideas that would make our jaws drop – unique and unusual. But not all his ideas were brilliant, and even those that were could be unwelcome. There were too many to implement without constant turmoil.
I used to hate long weekends, when after extra time on his farm – alone with nature and his muse – he would come in jazzed for action. “Weekends?” Mr. Lind laughs. “Ted was a workaholic, 14 to 15 hours every day. He would call at midnight or 7 a.m., asking, ‘Have I caught you at a bad time?’”
It’s never easy to say no to the boss. I think Mr. Reynolds knew some of his ideas were clunkers; he gave up on them easily. Another idea man I’ve observed gives many up very quickly, as if he’s testing the waters, while some linger surprisingly long, offered in joking fashion, I think. Mr. Lind says “Ted must have realized if you have 100 ideas, not all were good. But he always argued for them. We had fierce arguments. He was impatient. He wanted so much so quickly. He was almost unsatisfiable, if that’s a word.”
In the book, Mr. Lind says he wished Mr. Rogers could have sat back and savoured his victories. But instead, he was on to the next battle. “Even at victory parties, he was always thinking – and usually talking – about what was next,” Mr. Lind writes. That probably describes all idea machines.
It fell to Mr. Lind to rebuff Mr. Rogers at some critical moments, such as in 1995, when surveys showed that the Rogers brand name was badly damaged by various public controversies. The man whose surname was the brand decided to change the corporate title – and its phones, cable networks, video stores and media – to Cantel, the wireless moniker. “He was determined to do it. I was determined it wouldn’t happen. It was a Rogers company, not a Cantel company,” the right-hand man said.
Mr. Lind says there is no surefire strategy for such situations. He commissioned studies and delayed, delayed, delayed. Eventually the idea died, perhaps because Mr. Rogers decided it wasn’t a good move or it just wasn’t worth it, Mr. Lind figures.
Another time, Mr. Rogers was wearing down his executive team with his barrage of written edicts. “Ted, we’ve got a horrible problem,” Mr. Lind said. “There’s some maniac out there firing off memos and signing your name to them.”
One time I was unhappy at one of Mr. Reynolds’s ideas that would fall to me to implement. “I’m furious,” I said, as I headed for the door to leave his office. Alarmed, he called me back, shaken at my words, and immediately withdrew the idea.
Was this a strategy I could use in future? No, that would have been unfair gamesmanship – and foolhardy because in these situations, the relationship is critical, allowing the idea machine to be challenged when necessary. Mr. Lind remembers a board meeting where Mr. Rogers gave a passionate speech in favour of a U.S. long-distance partnership with Sprint. Mr. Lind called it a terrible idea, and the board sided with him and AT&T. “He always moved on. He wasn’t mad for a long time,” Mr. Lind recalls. “It depends on the relationship you have with the genius and his personal characteristics. It’s unique to the personalities involved.”
- Albert Einstein: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there’s no hope for it."
- Every time you rush to save the day, you teach people to wait for you to save the day, says leadership trainer Dan Rockwell.
- Worth reading: The Knowledge Base is a long list of principles from a variety of management books gleaned by Norman Wright, who operates the Strivingstrategically.com site.
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