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


Jack’s Right Fight

“Andre,” Jack said, finally cutting him off, “this isn’t the way the game is played. If Danita tries to pull a fast one, don’t you think I’d notice? I agree, Danita is a hell of a presenter, but that doesn’t make her anything but talented. Life isn’t fair. But your work will get a fair shake. It’s your job to see that your true brilliance, something we have relied on for a long time, is out there in full force. And please don’t present one of your infamous PowerPoint decks and put us all to sleep.”

He got up to show that it was time to go. “You’ve got two weeks,” Jack said as he left Andre’s office. “Make the most of it.”

Jack spent much of the next 13 days putting out little political fires started by Andre and Danita. Andre had started rumors about the sales division and how it was not meeting targets. How then, he argued, could it meet any new, higher ones? Danita didn’t complain openly about Andre, but she didn’t have to; it was clear that she regarded him as a lightweight. Meanwhile, she used all the force of her personality, and whatever favors she could call in, to get people to contribute to her presentation and back her approach.

These tricks presented Andre and Danita in a new light, Jack found. The two SVPs had, in fact, fallen prey to the kinds of traps that create wrong fights. Their covert maneuvers drained organizational energy, distracted people from both long-term goals and day-to-day operations, and disappointed everyone around them. Jack didn’t see much he could do about it. He thought they could both use feedback and coaching, but the stakes were so high he didn’t want anyone feeling railroaded by him. And time was running out. The day of the meeting came all too soon: It was time to conduct the presentations, get the two ideas out on the table, and make an executive decision.

“Danita,” said Jack, smiling, “You’re first. Go ahead. Knock it out of the park.”

Danita began by arguing that the main effort should focus on the sales force, reorganizing salespeople regionally. She had conducted some research that showed that the base business, if focused that way, would take a huge leap. After all, the base business had much better margins than the portable units.

She proposed using the profits from the first year to build up the portable model’s major expansion in Year Two. She would need big resources quickly to pull off the restructuring, add a few high-priced top people, and put up a website for the sales force to help them with the eventual rollout of the portable unit. It wouldn’t completely gut the marketing budget, but she was going to need a big piece of it.

Andre’s plan headed in an entirely different direction. He had hired a topnotch consultant with wide expertise in marketing. The consultant had come back with a market segmentation plan that could hit the numbers. And the plan was a good one. The basic insight was to goose up the base business a little, but to take most of the money and roll out the new portable model in small businesses, local organizations, and schools. Their plan would also take on a piece of the consumer market in a big way for the first time.

Tension built slowly through the meeting, but something in Jack’s gut told him that wasn’t a bad thing. The choice lay with him. And the team knew it; some people were clearly watching him, trying to guess what he would decide. It was obvious that both Danita and Andre had their own agendas, and everyone understood that. Everyone also wanted the whole team to succeed — so that it wouldn’t be the end of the world for the loser. And they hoped Jack would make sure that the losing team would not go away empty-handed.

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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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