CXO

Want to reach the top? Study the masters

Want to reach the top of your company? You might need to focus on more than your technology skills. In this week's Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein gives aspiring leaders advice on making it big.


Capturing great jobs is easy. If you’re smart and talented and have an explosive resume that headhunters drool over, you can even make a pile of money in the bargain.

But, that doesn’t mean you’re capable of commanding a company’s top job. Mistakenly, techies think technical prowess alone is the fuel propelling you to big jobs.

That kind of thinking is dead wrong asserts Gerald C. Meyers, co-author with Susan Meyers, of the recently released Dealers, Healers, Brutes, & Saviors (John Wiley & Sons; $27.95). Meyers, the former chairman of American Motors Corporation, should know firsthand.

A mechanical engineer by training, he knows what it takes to run a big company from the time he served in the corporate trenches, hanging out with America’s top CEOs. The best way to learn, he says, is from example.

If you’re champing at the bit to climb the corporate ladder, Meyers advises pulling in the reins and studying the masters of modern technology first. Study the unique styles of the powerhouse managers and CEOs who put Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Sun Microsystems, and Cisco on the map.

One point Meyers preaches is not to believe the myth that the world “wants better mousetraps.”

“Not true,” he said. “That’s a hard concept for techies to fathom because they’re brought up thinking people will beat a path to your door if you break new ground and turn out something totally new and unique.”

Lessons from Harley-Davidson
Meyers’ book tells how former CEO Vaughn L. Beals turned around motorcycle company Harley-Davidson , lifting it from near bankruptcy and returning it to legendary status.

The family-run company fell upon hard times after the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) acquired it. Smaller, cheaper, sporty, finely engineered Japanese imports were killing Harley’s sales.

The company kept losing market share until 13 Harley employees led by Beals bought the company in a $65 million leveraged buyout in 1981. Instead of going toe-to-toe with the Japanese models by introducing newer and better technology, Beals studied the demographics of Harley customers.

Some belonged to motorcycle gangs like the Hell’s Angels, but most were middle-aged baby boomers who loved the sound of a revved-up hog, liked to sport leather jackets, and tooled down the highway in a group showing off their big Harleys.

“Harley riders didn’t want technology,” explains Meyers. “They wanted tradition and camaraderie.”

More important was the Harley mystique and fantasy, which Beals returned to his customers. In so doing, he became the company savior.

The lesson here is that newer and better technology shouldn’t always be the focus of a company leader; it’s more important, in fact, to know your customers inside and out.

What techies can learn
The real issue for techies climbing the corporate ladder is to move beyond the technology, says Granville N. Toogood, business consultant to Fortune500 companies and author of The Creative Executive (Adams; $16).

“Techies are so focused on technology, they fail to find out who their customers are and what they want,” he explains. “It’s not always better technology. Consumers see products differently than the engineers designing the stuff. Engineers are going all out to impress buyers with bells and whistles while customers are looking for service, support, and reliability.”

Lots of products fell on their faces because consumers weren’t ready for them. Toogood mentions Apple’s Newton, Sony’s Betamax and, more recently, Microsoft’s Windows 2000. Maybe one day Windows 2000 will be heralded as a major software breakthrough, but right now users are grumbling about the reported 60,000 bugs, its complexity, and the lack of a good reason for turning their backs on Windows NT, which is still doing the job for thousands of companies.

In a frenetic effort to jam the pipeline with killer technology, companies are moving too fast for their customers.

“Sometimes, it’s as basic as just asking customers what they want,” Toogood said.

Now there’s a simple concept. If Beals could do it with Harley-Davidson, you can too.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

What else should those with technology backgrounds focus on when trying to move up the corporate ladder? Send us an e-mail or post a comment below.

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