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Published: September 11, 2007

 
 

The Situational Leader

Jack Stahl, a former chief executive at Coca-Cola and Revlon, discusses how great leaders balance their broad strategic missions with constant attention to organizational detail.

Throughout his tenures as president of Coca-Cola (1978–2000) and CEO of Revlon (2002–2006), Jack Stahl always made sure to jot notes to himself whenever his day-to-day experiences yielded a valuable lesson. Now he has organized those years’ worth of notes into Lessons on Leadership: The 7 Fundamental Management Skills for Leaders at All Levels. This primer encapsulates Stahl’s thinking about nearly every aspect of executive leadership — from hiring, to brand positioning, to insulating assets against currency fluctuation.

The most common leadership deficiency, according to Stahl, is an inability or unwillingness to focus on the details needed to implement any strategic approach. The best leaders, he believes, are “situational” — they are able to step into any circumstance and recognize whether they need to engage at the strategy level or dive into the nitty-gritty.

To illustrate this point, he cites an experience with his mentor, former Coca-Cola CEO Doug Ivester. Early in Stahl’s career, Ivester tasked him with preparing the prospectus for the public offering of Coca-Cola’s bottling division — a team project with a firm deadline. Stahl made the mistake of delegating the components of the project without putting adequate oversight in place. When Ivester asked to review an early draft, Stahl realized that it was far more incomplete than he’d thought — for starters, the new company’s phone number was missing from the first page — and that he bore ultimate responsibility. Ivester worked late into the night to make sure Stahl knew what he had to do to catch up and finish the project. The lesson for Stahl was that Ivester’s effectiveness as a leader derived from his skill at combining high-level oversight of the organization with the ability to delve into detail when necessary.

Stahl sat down with strategy+business in New York in July to discuss his approach to leading the C-suite.

S+B: How do you maintain tight oversight and a willingness to engage in details while resisting micromanagement?
STAHL:
By training others to focus on details, you reduce the need for micromanagement. After that experience with Doug Ivester, I’d learned my lesson, and we never went through a similar exercise again. At that point, he could talk to me about the new company’s strategy.

Doug had the ability to balance out both sides of the leadership coin. He was an abstract thinker who could sit down and say, “Okay, what’s going to be most important once this new company gets on its feet? What are the key strategic issues?” But if he hadn’t had that meeting with me and been willing to sit there until 2:00 in the morning, we weren’t going to get that company formed. And he was smart enough to know we needed a plan. So, for me, that’s a critical differentiator.

This is a role that I have played with up-and-coming leaders since then. I have sat down with people until all hours of the night, helped them see the holes in their work, and helped them gain that respect for detail. And it is not fun, because nobody wants you to do that. The normal reaction is, “Get out of my face and let me do my job.” People usually don’t want that help, but it absolutely pays off.

My point is that management is not a popularity contest. Everybody in an organization has got to be focused on details. As a leader, once you see that people are doing that successfully, then you pull back and worry about things from a more strategic perspective.

S+B: In what ways did your leadership techniques adjust to changing times during your 22 years at Coca-Cola?
STAHL:
Well, the biggest change during that time frame was the volume of information. Coca-Cola operates in 180 countries, and 30 years ago, if you were in headquarters, you might hear from a top 10 market, like Brazil, once a month; you’d get a telefax that described its operating results. Maybe you visited Brazil once a year, and maybe they came to Atlanta once a year, and there was the occasional telephone contact.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: A framework for understanding how and why business leaders are listening to a broader range of constituencies. Click here.
  2. Victoria Pao and Steve Lawrence, “The Internal Impact of External Branding,” s+b enews, 1/27/03: The importance of communicating brand ideas within organizations. Click here.
  3. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003: The University of Michigan leadership teacher, who worked with Jack Welch in engineering GE’s 1990s transformation, talks about his teaching techniques, which are designed to foster responsibility and engagement at every level of the organization. Click here.
  4. Jack Stahl, Lessons on Leadership: The 7 Fundamental Skills for Leaders at All Levels (Kaplan Publishing, 2007): A straightforward guide to success in the essentials of business leadership. Click here.