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 / Spring 2010 / Issue 58(originally published by Booz & Company)


Jack’s Right Fight

When the head of a division had an impossible target to meet, the only way forward was through a constructive battle between allies.

Jack Sparr called to order what was probably the most important meeting of his career. “Let’s get started,” he said. “You need to know what’s going on.” He paused for a moment and looked at his team. He was proud of them. But he had a challenge they would have to rise to. What was it President Kennedy had said about becoming a war hero? “It was unintentional; they sank my boat.” They would all have to be heroes now.

“Here’s the deal,” Jack began. “Franz needs something extraordinary out of us this coming year. The company’s under pressure to grow. A lot. And since we’re the best unit in the company, we need to grow the most. Profitably. Thirty percent.”

He held up his hand to stop the exclamations. Andre, Jack’s senior vice president of marketing, cut through the noise with his dry voice. “It’s not like we haven’t been growing, Jack.” There were murmurs of agreement around the big conference table.

“I know,” said Jack. “This is our reward for doing so well. But we’ve got a tremendous opportunity with the portable unit. Not only to sell a lot of product and make our numbers. But to save lives. And that’s why we get up in the morning.”

He looked around the table again, and saw that he had everyone’s attention. “And that’s why I know you’re going to be able to do this. Despite the bad news.”

“Don’t tell me,” said Andre. “No budget increase to make the 30 percent, right? Or to launch a new product into new markets.”

“That’s about right. We’re getting some, but not as much as I wanted — or you wanted.” Jack put his hands on the table. “I’m still negotiating with Franz and the other divisions, but it’s looking like you can count on 5 percent at most.”

After the chorus of groans died down, he continued. “That means that we have to figure out how to make the new product launch work, and expand sales of the standard line, with essentially the same amount of money that we had last year.”

Jack paused. “Andre, we aren’t going to have the budget to do the big worldwide splash for the portable model that you were looking for. So from you, I need a Plan B to get us to 30 percent profitable growth despite that little limitation. And Danita.” He turned to his senior vice president of sales. “I want the same thing from you. Give us your own separate plan to get to 30 percent, assuming flat funding. You’re not going to have the money for a big reorg, but let’s see some creativity.” He paused again.

“You’ve both got two weeks. And don’t give me anything halfhearted or provincial. Your plans need to look at all aspects of what the division can bring to the table to deliver these results. Work with each other, too. You know the drill. You don’t get a Coke by putting four quarters in four machines. Think big.”

Everyone around the table rolled their eyes at this one; they’d heard it many times from Jack, who had found much success in his career by making big, gutsy bets. But, thought Jack, they looked ready to try.

“I know this is tough,” he said. “But you guys are the best there is. Two weeks from today. Same time, same place. Give it your best shot.”

There was a brief silence. Then Danita spoke up. “We’d better get started, then,” she said, with a light tone that fooled no one.

As he watched them go, Jack wondered how the competition he had just set in motion would go between Danita and Andre. They were both tough, no-nonsense executives with a good team sense but also a keen sense of self-interest. They both were in line for his job, and the race between the two of them was fierce. He knew they would both take this opportunity as a way to show their stuff. That was in part why he had set them against each other. He just had to watch to make sure that it didn’t get out of bounds. Jack was certain that the resulting plans would be better than anything either of them would produce without the competition, and he was as interested as they were in the results.

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  1. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business, 2004): How to look clearly at the issues facing you, rather than live in a cocoon of comfortable assumptions.
  2. Saj-nicole Joni, The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results (Portfolio, 2004): To navigate the complexity of right fights, you need a strong inner circle and advisors who will tell you the unvarnished truth.
  3. Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation, and Value (Harper Business, 2010): A guide to constructive conflict and its benefits.
  4. Zia Khan and Jon Katzenbach, “Are You Killing Enough Ideas?” s+b, Autumn 2009: Informal but candid battles that help companies focus on the right innovations.
  5. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking Penguin, 1999): Why you can’t fight right fights without the personal capability of having straightforward conversations.
  6. 12 Angry Men. Directed by Sidney Lumet. MGM, 1957: Classic film about a fight worth fighting.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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