Orchestrator or Autocrat?

June 14, 2011

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal contained an article by former Chrysler and General Motors executive Bob Lutz called “Life Lessons from a Car Guy.”  Lutz believes that different kinds of organizations require different kinds of leaders.  A loosely-connected conglomerate like General Electric requires a leader with vision and portfolio management skills; investing/divesting lines of business, setting governance and performance goals, and choosing appropriate leaders for the individual businesses.  In contrast, an automotive company is akin to a human being with highly evolved individual departments that rely on each other for day-to-day operations. For these kinds of organizations, Lutz claims that the “much-scorned autocratic style of management” is essential for success.

When Lutz arrived at GM, its culture emphasized “benevolent, thoughtful sharing and showing respect for other.” Data was valued over opinions; debates were discouraged.  In the article’s sidebar, Lutz provides a hysterical example of the lengths to which this analytical culture was taken.  David E. Davis, founder of Automobile Magazine and an accomplished presenter, received the following letter from GM after speaking at one of their conferences:

Dear David:

You asked for feedback on your remarks at our recent conference. The data is just now available.

The rating scale was zero to ten with ten being “best.” The five non-GM speakers had scores ranging from zero to ten. Yours ranged from three to ten. The five “outside speakers'” average scores ranged from 5.25 to 8.25.

Your average was 7.35.
Two speakers had higher scores than yours.

Your standard deviation from the mean was 1.719 and ranked second among the variances, showing that most people had a similar opinion about your remarks.

I personally enjoyed your remarks very much. Your refreshing candor, coupled with your broad understanding of people, product, and the market, gave us exactly what we asked you for—”widened competitive awareness.”

Thank you for your participation.

Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group

While detailed analysis like this might be suitable for professional training, it’s complete overkill for remarks over dinner.

In this environment, Lutz adopted the style of a benevolent dictator, spending hundreds of hours preaching his vision of product excellence and customer satisfaction.  GM seems to have regained some of its stature as a result.

Thinking closer to home, the software industry – in which companies are structured more like an automotive company than a conglomerate – is rife with stories of dictatorial CEOs.  Personally, I can remember multiple times during my past start-ups in which I “strongly suggested” that a feature should be added or that the user interface changed.  The strong-arming seemed to get product to market more quickly. 

However, as my span of control has increased and I have had to deal with the resulting complexity, I have leaned more towards orchestration.  I’ve become more evangelist than benevolent dictator.

Orchestration or autocrat? It may feel better to work for the orchestrator but which style do you think produces better results?