Lead with Just the Power of Ideas

I watched the movie Inception during a recent flight. It is a film about planting ideas into the minds of businessmen by sneaking into their dreams. This sounds difficult until we consider the film’s viewpoint that all existence, awareness and thought is in some ways a dream. The leading character in the film asks:

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

The idea sticks “right in there” as in right in one’s head. In fact we are constantly planting or picking up ideas. Ideas are indeed powerful things, capable of transforming us as people and through our action even the world around us.

A recent McKinsey Quarterly article featuring an interview with Jim Owens, the CEO of construction equipment company Caterpillar. Mr. Owens has served Caterpillar for 38 years, as an economist by training who rose through the ranks of accounting to be CFO and has led as chief executive often with just the power of ideas. Here are a few ideas worth nothing from the article:

On the most important lesson he learned as a manager

And I didn’t have anybody working directly for me, but I had division managers–from manufacturing, engineering, purchasing, accounting, and our parts and service group–on a committee that I chaired that reported to a group of officers of the company. And working through that dilemma and thinking about how to reposition Caterpillar–and really having to lead with just the power of ideas, because none of these people worked directly for me–was a period of stress and one that I learned a tremendous amount in. And I think, in the end, we got a lot done. And so, you begin to take a lot of pride at what you can get done with leadership without position power.

On his personal leadership style

I very much believe in teamwork and I think a values-based management style that really is as simple as the golden rule. You want to treat people as you’d like to be treated. And if you keep that in mind, and really value and respect other people’s opinions, then you can get the kind of teamwork, I think, that it takes to be successful over time in the economy we’re competing in today.

To me, any great company–it’s not about a great individual leader; it’s about a leadership culture within the company. And it’s about establishing a leadership culture that does value people. And that draws out the best in, literally, a cast of–a company the size of Caterpillar–thousands of leaders around the world who are making decisions every day. So, it’s about getting that kind of passion and enthusiasm for winning brought out in people all across your enterprise.

On building a corporate culture

Over the recent years I have been very concerned about–we’ve had some we-they-isms in the culture, particularly when it comes to production workforce and management workforce, union versus non-union, in some of our facilities. And one of the things I really emphasized and recognized is [that] united teams win, divided teams lose.

Early on I felt, from a people dimension, the only way to get from being a good company to a great company is just to go to uncommonly high levels of engagement with all of your people. We wanted to go from sort of good-average on safety to one of the very best in the world. And this is back to that we-they attitude. I didn’t want this to be something that we did jointly with the union or something. They’re Caterpillar employees. We needed to go out and stake out the ground that we were going to look after everybody all day. And we’re going to look after our fellow employee workers, and it’s a joint initiative. And we held management accountable for delivering steady improvement in safety performance and for moving Caterpillar to one of the best in the industrial world.

On his legacy at Caterpillar

I think I will probably be most remembered for the performance of the company in the most difficult and severe recession since 1938. What I’d like to be most remembered for, of course, is the people side of the equation. Great communications, values-based management, walking the talk on our values in action, and a highly ethical company, you know, are the kind[s] of things that I’m probably proudest of. Not probably–I am proudest of.

On the path of economic recovery

We’ve got to improve our trade balance by increasing our exports–not by becoming protectionists, but by staying open to the world market and aggressively working on [the] global competitiveness of our economy.

It’s hard for most US citizens to come to grips with the reality that we’re 5 percent of the world’s population. I think we’re going to be dealing in a world in the future that’s–in terms of its economic centers of gravity–is going to be very multipolar. The emerging-market theater now has more than 50 percent of GDP globally. They’re growing much faster. So, the game has changed. The need to think about global competitiveness is ever greater.

On the role of business leaders in wider society

I think business leaders, you know, sort of in the post-Enron world and all of the issues around maybe excessive compensation, business leaders have kind of stepped to the background. What I worry about is: we don’t want to address the difficult issues, and we’ve become politically polarized to where we can’t have an adult conversation about some of the things that we need to do better as a country in terms of economic policy.

I think the business community just has to get more engaged in helping educate the public.

Now, which of these ideas are stuck in your head, giving you power to lead?