Editor’s note: William Dunk of William Dunk Partners is an international business consultant who has been based in Chapel Hill since 1996. He writes frequently about business and cultural issues in his column “The Global Province.” He also compiles a widely read and quoted review of corporate annual reports.
CHAPEL HILL – We cannot begin to count the number of chief executives, senior officials, academics, et. al. with whom we have commiserated after they have been summarily put out to pasture. Again and again we have said to them—with deep conviction—that they have been squeezed out just when they are beginning to amount to something. A man with potential needs to be kicked and beaten, to struggle up Mount Everest and fall down the backside, before he amounts to a hill of beans. It’s at that point that one has a shot at greatness. Often this grooming takes a lifetime, and does not bear fruit ’til very late in one’s career.
We had never noticed Charles McGrath, who had put in years at the New Yorker, had a stretch as editor of the New York Times Book Review, and now is a freelancer with the grand title of writer-at-large for the Times. For Sunday’s Week in Review (October 28,2007, p. W1& W5),he did an original and unlikely column about editing, a subject on which he has some inside knowledge. In short, it is about editors with a deft hand—and those with a heavy hand. The great Maxwell Perkins, who shaped many of our great authors, crafted the prolix, turgid, wandering Thomas Wolfe into an acceptable author. Slash and burn Gordon Lish cut Raymond Carver to the bone and is fairly accused of distorting the meaning of more than one piece. The heirs and apostles of each sainted author are certain that these editors brutally hacked out the best of each author’s prose, and have been hard at work putting out unexpurgated versions of their heroes. This article made us quite sure that McGrath is finally worthy of note, now that he no longer occupies an editor’s chair. His star has risen.
The Next CEOs
As it happens, we are on the prowl for four or five chief executives at the moment, though we are not in the headhunting game. Several of the companies we are helping are ready for new blood at the top, not because the current officeholders are failing or even being urged to leave. They just know it is time to git. And, hearing Lady Macbeth, they are not waiting on any order to be gone.
For several reasons it will not be easy to elect new kings. The last quarter century has been a mediocre period in our history, and we are not casting up a squadron of natural leaders. We’ve seen this in our recent presidents, no matter the party. We see this in our large table of candidates for the presidency, no matter the party. The same echo has been heard about the land—in politics, business, academia, etc. Our leaders have been found wanting.
But the problem is not just a lack of tall men. Our leaders must now have global reach which demands a capacity for working well with those they in no way control and an ability to break with the business models and practices of the past. This demands a great deal from leaders who were inculcated with the truisms and myths of the past. Those who would have shined in previous eras have now lost their glow. They were taught to be big fish in very small ponds, and now they must be small, agile fish in a huge pond.
Agile CEOs Akin to Deft Editors
That brings us back to Maxwell Perkins. In a global setting where 2/3 of a company’s work may be done by people not on its payroll and where developed countries are listing under an aging workforce and a cost burden that puts smiles on the face of up-and-comers in Asia, the CEO has a delicate chore. He must get the creative best out of his company’s network, encouraging outrageous out-of-the box thinking on the run from those in his orbit. He must be a Maxwell Perkins, but, he must have a lot of Wolfes waiting to pounce.
Very early in life many of us read a sad tale called “The Man Without a Country.” In it, a man casts aside his citizenship, becoming forever an exile, with no place to call home. Strangely enough that is what we are demanding of our next chief executives. They must become citizens of the world in order to do their duties well.
A financier of our acquaintance in China has told us how he figures out if he has the right head for each of his entrepreneurial companies. Commonly he will ask one of his CEOs, “How are things at home?” Often a chief will look at him quizzically and shoot back, “Which home?” That’s the right answer, as far as our friend is concerned, because he knows then he is linked to a man of many nations. A man who swims in a big pond.