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A Manager’s Viewpoint

A Gung-ho management

/ 12:01 AM November 08, 2015

WHEN World War II was still raging, there was a Hollywood movie about the encounter in the Pacific entitled “Gung Ho.” The turning point of the movie with action-packed and thrilling battle scenes was the recapture of the Japanese-held Maikin Island. The movie popularized the words “gung ho.” It was a propaganda flick to boost the morale of the soldiers in the warfront.

Gung Ho is the Anglicized version of the Chinese words “gong he” translated into English as “work” and “together.”  Somehow, as time passed by, “gung ho” has morphed in the American English as “dedicated” and “enthusiastic.”  In the corporate world, a management on the go symbolizes the gung-ho style of leadership.

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To my mind, in the lexicon of business management, gung ho is an organization that is aggressive, ruthless (taking no prisoners), results-oriented, with low tolerance for mediocrity and failure.

I had a boss who had a gung ho personality. Outside the workplace, he was a nice person to be with. In social gatherings, he was “kwela”, almost putting food into your mouth when he played host at his home. He was a likable chap to play tennis with. But he was a terror at work. When we, executives, were asked to do something, we didn’t dare to ask when he wanted it done. We knew the standard answer: “Yesterday.”

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Our Monday staff meeting started at 1 o’clock and ended at exactly 2 pm. Tardiness was a no- no. One time, a manager was late twice. The gung ho boss called him to his office and told him calmly, courteously, but with a tone of firmness: “Joe, your coming in late at our meetings is distractive and disrespectful to those who come on time. Why don’t you come early next meeting?” It sounded like a suggestion but knowing his personality, it was an order. Joe (not his real name) got the message and he was never late from that time on.

If one has to graph a management style, it starts at the bottom from autocratic up to the top which is democratic. In a continuum, where style of management varies depending upon the circumstances and the people one deals with, my boss could be classified as boss-centered rather than employee-centered. Sure, he was very democratic in bouncing off ideas. He picked our minds. After percolating the ideas of all his senior staff, he makes the decision, and regardless of the odds, he would say “Go. Let’s do it.” There was no vacillation at all.

My boss had a strong dislike for people who didn’t produce. After a performance evaluation, a team member who appeared hopeless had to be discharged. After discussing his consistent poor performance, looking at me straight in the eye, he said: “I don’t want a moocher to stay longer in our company, Noli. Talk to him and ask him to go. If he does not resign, well, we’ll just have to bite the bullet. Fire him.”

But he had a soft heart for people who were productive and had the potential to take higher jobs in the future.  On this score, I would say he was people-oriented because he had to interview candidates even for positions three levels below him. Very particular about exit interviews, he wanted to know why a high performer wanted to leave. At one time, he was able to persuade a manager to stay. A year later, he was promoted VP for a new product line. He became one of the star performers of the company.

My boss’ style was contagious and we all adopted his gung ho style of management. Sure, there were booboos in our management decisions, hiccups in some of our executions. He was a risk-taker and we had to pay the price for that. But the “full-steam ahead, damn the torpedoes” syndrome became the central fabric of the culture of the company.  And it had paid off in the bottom line figures. In the competitive field, from the third place in sales, we romped to number one. And it remained that way until he left five years later after some serious rift with some members of the board.

That guy reminds me of T. J. Rogers, founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor.  He wrote a book entitled “No Excuses Management.” One of Silicon Valley’s fast growing microchip manufacturing companies, his book created quite a stir in the business community. Incidentally, Cypress Semiconductor has a manufacturing plant in Cavite.

Anyway, Rogers’ claims that while many companies adopt the “no surprises” policy, it’s a way of life in his organization.  Its systems track corporate, departmental and individual performance so regularly and in such detail that no manager, including Rogers can plausibly claim to be in the dark about critical problems.  It gives managers the capacity to monitor what’s happening in all levels of the company, to anticipate problems or conflicts, to intervene when appropriate and identify best practices without creating layers of bureaucracy that bogs down timely decisions.

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T.J. Rogers’ focus on people, particularly in attracting and retaining top talent, is the foundation of his philosophy on management of people. He declares that his number one policy is: “Hire outstanding people and hold on to them.” He would go out of his way to talk and attract the best and the brightest people to join his company. He summed up this philosophy with this curt, acidic remark: “I want to work with the best, the rest I don’t care about.”

He wants to hang on to the best talent if possible. He claims that Cypress’ process in reacting when a valued employee wants to quit is the company’s most important HR practice. When a good talent wants to resign, Rogers goes to him and asks why. He does not buy the usual financial excuse that another company is offering him twice or more than he is currently receiving because “it is almost not the real reason why people leave.” Without making a counter offer, he asks the guy: “Assume that the pay is the same, now tell me what is really wrong.”

That’s when the guy really opens up. He’s bored with his job, there’s no challenge anymore, no career growth, there’s conflict with his immediate supervisor and all other non-monetary reasons. If it is boring job, Rogers looks for a job that interests him. If it is conflict with his immediate boss, Rogers relocates him elsewhere. If the concern is career growth, he asks HR to develop a career plan for the guy. At one time, he asks another manager to transfer to another equally important position to promote the talented guy to his position.

Seldom does Rogers makes a counter offer with a better pay unless he checks with HR on the internal and external equity pay for the position. In one interview of Rogers 10 years after the publication of his book, he confided. “Of my fourteen VPs, 80% have more than 10 years tenure and at one point in their career more than one half have tried to resign. I would have lost them had I not intervened to turn the situation around.”

Rogers, like my gung ho boss, does not mince words in getting negative feedback when somebody underperforms. One time, Roger tells offhand a manager: “Your project is screwed up.” The manager admitted and promised to fix it up. He does not say things that are nice while implying that there is something wrong. “I am not treating them like a person who is to be coddled and handled in some sort of dishonest way. That way of building self esteem is anti-human and degrading.” He is opposed to the ‘touchy feely nanny company.’   “We are a hard ass company that gives negative feedback when negative feedback is warranted.”

Rogers does not also believe in softening up a bad news. He tells what it is. He hates to mislead the employees. He cited the hypocrisy of United Airlines. Before declaring bankruptcy, they told all employees that everything was all right. Rogers bristles: “All the feedback was positive, while they were running the ship into an iceberg. This hypocrisy becomes very obvious when you walk into a room and say, everybody is good, everybody is happy, everybody loves everybody else, and 30% of you are being laid off.”  Doesn’t this kind of dialogue ring a bell to you in some companies doing downsizing, . .  oops, rightsizing exercise in the Philippines?

There is indeed some parallelisms between my gung ho boss and J. T. Rogers of Cypress Semiconductor.  Their style of management may sound harsh, ruthless, manipulative, heartless, bereft of human touch. But in my book, the style makes sense. It is management on the go.

(Noli is Chairman of Change Management International, a management consultancy firm; currently, Vice-President of ECOP; professional lecturer on Human Resource Management and Labor Relations and member of the Tripartite Industrial Peace Council (TIPC), and member of the Tripartite Executive Committee (TEC) and Commissioner of Tripartite Voluntary Arbitration Advisory Council (TVAAC). He is  author of the book, “Human Resource Management – From the Practitioner’s Point of View.” His email address is: [email protected])

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