On leadership, success, TouchPad, and The Godfather

How often do we cancel (or let die slowly and painfully) business ventures, initiatives, and projects without giving them every chance to be successful, without actually trying hard enough?

The recent abrupt exit from the tablet market by HP after what amounts to barely dipping the tips of their toes in the pool — a mere forty-nine days — has received a lot of attention in the media.

By now we know that these and other decisions cost Leo Apotheker his job as a CEO (admittedly, he did not do too badly financially) and Meg Whitman has been installed in his stead. Yet another ingredient is badly needed at this point to get HP on the road to recovery: a new board.

The whole debacle has made me wonder whether we realize how much of this happens in our own organizations. How often do we cancel (or, worse yet, let wilt slowly and painfully) business ventures, initiatives, and projects without giving them every chance to be successful, without actually trying hard enough?

I am convinced that this is happening today in your organizations, at a great loss to employees, clients, and shareholders alike.

Success does not necessarily look, smell, and taste like success right away. Except for cases of sheer luck, it's almost always born out of hard work, conflict, challenges, trials, and tribulations.

Take one of the best-known success stories in the history of movie-making, The Godfather. This kind of success is impossible to argue with, and one can assume that it was evident from the very start. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For starters, the book on which the movie is based almost did not happen. In 1965, Mario Puzo found himself broke and knee-deep in gambling debts. He concocted a proposal for what he felt would be a commercially attractive book and went shopping for a publisher. He was rejected eight times before finally signing a contract with G.P. Putnam's Sons and receiving a small advance.

It was not until 1969 — four years later — that the book was finally published. During this time, Puzo's financial position continued to remain precarious, so much so that he opted to sign an unfavorable agreement with Paramount Studios — against his agent's advice. As one Paramount executive recalled later: "We had to give him the bread to keep him alive while he was writing the book..."

Paramount was one of the least successful studios in the country at the time, and even though Puzo's novel was selling very well, it wasn't until 1970 that they decided to make it into a "low-budget gangster movie."

Now what? The future (and improbable at this point) success needed a director. Not fewer than twelve directors were approached but refused to take it on. Francis Ford Coppola, at twenty-nine, inexperienced, and desperate to raise money to cover losses of his prior ventures, was a forced choice with not a shadow of a guarantee of success.

The filming was not particularly indicative of the future success either. Coppola and Paramount were at disagreement on any number of things, from the time and location (the studio wanted the cheaper option of The Godfather being a contemporary movie, filmed in Cleveland), to the choice of actors. The iconic music score by Nino Rota was nearly left out. Coppola was almost fired no fewer than five times.

Peter Bart, one of Paramount's executives at the time, summed it all up later: "Making The Godfather was such an extraordinarily unpleasant experience in every aspect that I've avoided thinking about it or talking about it for thirty years."

The Godfather went on to win scores of awards and receive recognition as one of the best movies ever made. It may be hard to reconcile its success with the less-than-smooth making. Would Coppola see the end of filming if he were doing this today?

Most things worth doing in business and in life are achieved through hard work, conflict, and perseverance.

The far-too-common practice and a sign of weak leadership is to apply "cost-cutting measures" to all projects in one's portfolio, hence not upsetting anyone but starving all projects to death equally. For years, I admonished executives to cancel projects that no longer make sense and to reallocate freed-up resources to projects that are critically important, to advance those with force.

Today, I also urge executives to have faith and support with all their clout the work that truly needs doing, especially when the going is rough and success is far from being certain. Such behavior is a sign of true leadership.

And unlike HP's recent TouchPad venture, true leadership takes more than just dipping the toes in the water.


Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

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