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Transcript: Checking off the checklist to success

Professor Mike Useem of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School has published a new book - 'The Leader's Checklist' - which takes a page from aviation, and applies it to business management.


Karl Moore: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I'm delighted to speak to Mike Useem, who's a senior professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Good afternoon, Mike.

Michael Useem: Good afternoon, Karl.

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KM: Mike, new book out, The Leader's Checklist – 15 things every leader should know and do. Maybe you can tell us about the top three or four, in your mind, of the 15 that really are particularly important.

MU: So, The Leader's Checklist really is coming out of the idea that a pilot has a checklist that is required before any pilot takes off – you have to check fuel, flight plan and weight. A surgeon, these days, has to have a checklist – do you have the right patient, is it the right side, not the left side and are you about to apply an anesthesia that the patient's not going to be adversely reactive to.

On the same premise, we need a complete set of, what you might call, mission-critical actions that a leader needs to express. They have to be as simple as possible and the list needs to be complete – we have to have them all. In the same sense, you don't want a pilot to check 90 per cent of the items on the list and then forget, say, fuel on a given takeoff.

At the top of the list, in my view anyway, most important of all – pretty obvious here – is you've got to have a strategy, you've got to have a vision behind it and you've got to be able to execute around that and you need to be able to put it in words and express it.

No. 2, you have to be persuasive at how you communicate.

No. 3, you are in the wrong business if you are not a decisive decision maker. You've got to make a good and timely decision now. Those are the top three but the other 12 principles on the leader's checklist are pretty vital as well.

KM: The underlying assumption, in my mind, seems to be that [in]leadership, there [are]some commonalities between one industry and another and, even, between, let's say, business and government.

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MU: Karl, in creating the 15, I sought to cast across many companies, I've gone into the government, I've looked at non-profits, I've looked at four or five countries where leadership is at issue. I've concluded – these 15 are the universals.

So, if you're leading, if you're building a company in South Africa, you're an entrepreneur in India, you're running a big state-owned enterprise in China, you're working for the United Nations, these 15 are vital.

Having said that, there are additional principles that are going to apply that are different in India from China. They'll be distinctive at GE from what you need at Google. They're going to be different in hard times from good times.

So, think of it this way – you have a core of 15. Every leader, every time, everywhere needs those 15. But, it's not enough. It's like the preflight checklist, you have to have that down but, once you get flying, there are other checklists – for bad weather, for landing. And so, by the same metaphor, if you will, you do need several distinctive items if you're going to run a company – say in India – that will be different from running a company in California or in China, for that matter.

Karl Moore: This has been Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail.

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