Prepared for James H. Devlin, President, Tidi Products
Delivered at World Dental Trade Conference, Chicago
Good morning. It's always great to see so many familiar faces
and old friends at this convention. To me, such conventions are
only to demonstrate how many people a company can operate without.
Conventions are important in other ways, too. For example, I
know how many of you know this, but Chicago didn't get the name "windy
city" because of the breeze blowing off Lake Michigan.
That title came from the 1893 Chicago World Exposition. So many
public speakers and politicians showed up to that convention, that
a New York Times editor called Chicago "the windy city" --
referring not to the lake winds, but the bags of wind giving speeches.
I guess Chicago as a convention town should have more appropriately
been called "The long-winded city."
I mention that, not to prepare you for a long speech... for I intend
to stick to my allotted eight minutes--give or take 10 or 15 minutes.
I mention the windy city because we're talking today about transformational
leadership which, to me, essentially means harnessing the winds
But personally, I've got to say that I think tacking on the word "transformational" to "leadership" is
"Transformational" -- according to my handy Funk and
Wagnel Dictionary, means "in a period of transition."
What business have you ever seen that wasn't in a period of transition?
Leadership, in fact, means the act of initiating change. If you're
not transforming your organization, you're not a leader. You're
an administrator, a caretaker.
Of course, caretakers sometimes end up in leadership positions...and
they have done for the perception of genuine leadership what Little
Shop of Horrors did for the image of
The task of genuine business leaders has always been to lead
-- to take people from where they are to where they've never been
That's transformational. And that hasn't changed.
What has changed, of course, is the pace of change itself. Ever
since the invention of the computer, the pace of change has increased
exponentially virtually every year.
The knowledge accumulation and instant retrieval characteristics
of ever-advancing cyber technologies literally has put a world
of knowledge at everyone's finger tips.
The think tank people estimated that human knowledge is now doubling
every ten to 15 years. Think what that means.
Humanity has gained as much new understanding about our physical
world in the past 15 years as all of the inventors and scientists
did in the previous five hundred thousand years.
And we will double what we now know in less than ten years next
That's because knowledge builds on knowledge.
The more we learn, the faster the learning curve. It just keeps
building on itself in ever-tightening spirals like a technological
Now, the significance of that becomes clear when we realize that
the application of knowledge is what creates greater productivity,
and makes possible more innovative products and services.
The computer has upped productivity everywhere -- putting a squeeze
on profit margins for all of us.
The computer has leveled the competitive landscape -- allowing
anyone with a dollar-two-ninety-eight in his or her pocket to enter
almost any business.
And computers have added a global dimension to even the most
local of businesses.
Anyone with access to "the net" -- which is just about
everyone - - can chat and do business with anyone on this planet,
in real time.
And moving even faster than this innovation hurricane are customer
Dealers, dentists, HMOs, the public... everyone expects us to
offer up new products and ideas, faster and at lower prices than
It's like a dealer I called last week who said:
" What do
you mean you've got nothing new to offer me? It's been a whole
three weeks since your last visit."
There are a half dozen books on business out right now with "virtual
corporation" as their themes.
Like virtual reality, the virtual corporation is one that is
whatever the customers, shareholders, and general public wants
it to be
at any given moment, and in any milieu.
Agility... robustness... nimbleness... total flexibility...that's
really what all this talk about transformational leadership is
It's all about leading in the age of agility.
Now, one of the interesting things about this age of agility
is that we all get caught up in it.
To me, one of the greatest wonders is how little time it takes
before any new wonder no longer seems wonderful, or even interesting.
As a culture, we've become change junkies.
I realized that when I saw a TV ad last week that asked someone
why he bought a product. His eyes glazed over and he said, "Why,
because it's new."
You can, of course, try to ignore the age of agility and hope
it will go away. You can look back to the good old days -- way
when the magazines in the dentist's waiting room were new.
Or worse, you can scale down your operations in response. Cut
back, cut down, cut out of markets, as so many are doing right
You can be like the farmer who had two wind mills, but tore one
of them down because he didn't think there would be enough wind
Yet to me, this is an era of growth. Opportunities are literally
blowing in the wind right now.
As leaders, the implication is that we've got to look further
ahead than ever before because we're going to arrive at the future
We've got to overcome what I call "second-grader" thinking.
Ask a class of second graders to choose between eternal life
and recess on a sunny day and you can bet eternal life doesn't
Ask most managers to choose between fat quarterly returns or
long-term investment in the company's future, and long-term investment
stand a chance.
That's what all the business gurus mean when they say that "transformational
leadership means having a vision."
That's hardly profound. A gum-chewing hockey player by the name
of Wayne Gretzky understood that years ago when he said the secret
to his success was, and I quote: "I skate to where the puck
is going to be, not where it has been."
Yet that, in itself, creates a leadership dilemma.
It's hard to tell people that you need to change everything today
because of problems that are sure to come up a few years down
When times are good, it's hard to convince anyone that there
are potential holes in our structure that could eventually sink
When Jack Welch began the massive reorganization of General Electric,
for example, it was a record profit year, with no crushing problems
and, in fact, with so much cash and marketable securities that
he could have paid off all of GE's debts with money to spare.
Welch, however, looked further ahead at his product mix, and
at the rising competition. In Welch's words.
It was hard to
convince anyone, but I knew we were sitting in the most
comfortable deck chair on the Titanic."
I know exactly what Jack meant, for a year ago I looked at my
company's long term plans and realized that while we looked good
at the moment,
we were not positioned correctly for the future.
So, in the last few months, for example, we re-engineered ourselves.
We've gone from manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer to a manufacturer
only, selling exclusively through dealers.
In the process, we've sold one segment of our business and purchased
two others to reposition ourselves to where we need to be a few
years from now.
Now the experts say that when a dramatic change like that occurs,
you're supposed to change hats, and immediately become a transformational
I don't think it works that way. If you haven't been a transformational
leader right along, no one is going to follow you through a period
of dramatic, and personally threatening,
If you haven't already fostered a receptivity to change of all
kinds in your organization before you stir things up, you're
It's impossible to initiate dynamic change into a rigid culture
with highly-structured, inhibited people.
So how do you create a culture that is receptive to change?
By giving every employee the power, authority, and opportunity
to be transformational leaders in their own right.
At Tidi, for example, I'm proud of the fact that we're on the
leading edge of new technologies in order to achieve higher quality
our commodity-based processes, and be the low cost producer.
We were the first to do outbound telemarketing. We were ahead
of the industry in installing EDI -- Electronic Data Interchange---
which lets dealers make orders directly out of our stock.
Tidi wasn't first because the CEO is all that creative. My kids
tell me that I'm about as creative as a Xerox machine.
No, Tidi has been an innovator because we give our people the
opportunity to see their ideas through to reality.
That means not micro-managing... not telling people what to do
even when you think you could do it better. And, yes, it means
accepting mistakes as an essential part of the learning process.
There's an apocryphal story about one of Jack Welch's junior
executives who took a risk that didn't work out, and it cost
G.E. over a million
The young man came in to tender his resignation.
Jack said, "What do you mean you're quitting? You can't quit.
I just spent a million dollars on your education."
As another innovator named Ross Perot always says -- "It's
all right to spill the milk, as long as you don't kill the cow."
Perhaps most important in fostering a culture receptive to change,
you've got to develop trust.
That's not just my humble opinion. In a survey last year by the
Journal of Business Strategy, more than 15,000 executives were
asked what are the most important qualities needed to be a business
leader in this era of rapid change.
Some 85 percent put "ethics, honesty, and integrity" as
their top priorities.
Trust is essential. I remember Norm on the sit-com Cheers once
said, "Once the trust goes out of a relationship, it's no
fun lying to them anymore."
Trust in your sincerity, and your genuine concern for them, is
the most important factor to creating a genuinely dynamic, innovative
You have to prove that trust every day.
An example. I'm proud of the fact that when we sold off Veratex,
every employee either went on to the new management team as part
of the deal, found a place in our organization, took fully-funded
early retirement, or was helped in finding a job in another organization.
No one was swept aside or overlooked in the entire transition.
That fact will get around my organization by word of mouth. And
it will do more to create a confident and, therefore, risk-taking
attitude, than endless transformational staff meetings.
Transformational leadership is getting talented and intelligent
people to trust you...to work with you.
I think it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who said it best -- Ike said,
and I quote: "I'd rather have one person working with me than
one hundred working for me."
If we can get our people to work with us, rather than for us
-- we'll have transformational cultures that are receptive to
any kind of change.
Now, I can see my eight minutes is almost up -- give or take
ten minutes -- so I'll wrap it up by leaving you with something
When I first started as a supervisor, I remember my CEO saying, "I'm
too busy, I can't concern myself with individuals."
I remember thinking: "That's remarkable. Even God hasn't reached
that stage yet."
Well, to operate any business today is to think about individuals.
That's because instead of fast-paced enabling technologies
reducing the value of the individual, replacing him
and her with R2D2 and 3CPOs, it has enabled individuals, greatly
expanded each person's reach and power.
Virtually every employee is now no more than a few key strokes
away from a world of new ideas. That's true even if you don't
supply him or her with a computer --- there's one at home,
the net for ideas is now recreation.
So each employee is now a knowledge worker, a potential agent
of significant change.
For those who can lead, and not just manage, that means
expanding your reach... your opportunity for adaptation
your company's agility...expanding your possibilities
by as many employees as you can inspire to work with you,
For transformational leaders, these are exciting times.
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