Why 'A players' matter

Feb 03 2013 09:29
*Ian Mann
It's All About Who You Hire, How They Lead... and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader by Morton L Mandel 

THIS is an unusual book on leadership. 

It is the distilled wisdom of an American businessman and philanthropist, but that in itself is not unusual as there are literally thousands of books of this kind. 

There are three facts that make this book unusual. First, Mandel was described by the business guru, Peter Drucker, in a Forbes magazine article as one of the three businessmen he admired most. (The other two were Jack Welsh of General Electric and Andy Grove of Intel.) 

Second, his company, Premier Industrial Corporation, was the lead anecdote in a Business Week cover story on customer service, and superlative customer service is always the result of a business that is well managed. 

Finally, Mandel is a self-made dollar billionaire; his is a genuine story of rags to riches.

The title of the book, “It is all about who you hire" encapsulates much of its wisdom. Great leaders have always had an undue impact on the organisations they lead, whether the organisation is a non-profit, a for-profit or a country. 

This position has led to Mandel insisting that only “A players” occupy leadership positions in his own companies, and in the many public benefit organisations he served and those he established with his own wealth. 

In a conversation with Mandel, Drucker asserted that you must always put your very best person into your greatest opportunity. When Mandel countered with the question: what if your best person is dentist and your greatest opportunity is a brass foundry, Drucker replied that the best person would fast realise what he could not do and fast find the right person to do it.

This begs the question - what is an “A player?” Mandel has five criteria: intellect, values, passion, work ethic, and experience - in this order. 

The complexity of modern business requires its leader to have intellectual firepower, that ability to analyse facts correctly, interrogate situations cleverly, apply thoughtful judgement, and make good decisions. 

Fortunately, there are many ways to see a person’s intellect and Mandel favours school and university grades because they are taken over long periods and therefore are more reliable than a quick test or flash of brilliance in an interview.    

Values are harder to discern, but how a candidate talks about their parents, teacher and role models does provide clues.

Intellect and values without passion won’t get results you require from the leader. Passion, unlike values, is much easier to discern because you can feel it, hear, it see it. If you can feel it, so will the leader’s staff.

The work ethic Mandel is referring to is not only the capacity to work long and work hard, but the way you engage with your work. The work ethic is the belief that work goes a long way in defining oneself.

Experience comes last on this list of what you look for when you hire an “A player” because you can help an incumbent to have the relevant experience if he has the other four ingredients.

“A players” will need to be paid well, but this is always a small investment for the type of return they are able create. A greater problem is keeping them; they will not stay long in a company or organisation which does not have a rich, deep and ethical culture. 

A deeply ethical culture is the created and maintained only through diligently enforcing and reinforcing ethical behaviour between staff, and between the company and its suppliers and customers. It requires the establishing codes of conduct that are taken seriously, and never giving in to the temptation to compromise even if the cost is high. 

Mandel recalls a hugely valuable deal his firm had worked hard to close. When it was secured, the representative of the customer company explained that a 5% consideration was required – a veiled request for a “side payment.” 

There was no discussion as to whether Mandel’s company should accede to the request, so clear were the company's values to all. They don’t engage in dishonest practices, no matter the cost, so the deal was declined.

The style of management practised and promoted by Mandel is the polar opposite of the laissez faire type, where the CEO hires his leaders and releases them to do as they will. It is also not a command and control style.
 Mandel stays on top of all issues to provide guidance and assistance so that both the decisions and the execution are superb. 

The managers we want out of our way are invariably the managers who we do not respect. These are not managers who are helping you to do your best work; rather, they want you to blindly execute their will.

One of the techniques to achieve your personal best in your private life as well as your career is the “Factsbook.” This is a three-ring binder that every leader at every level has that contains minutes of every meeting you have with your manager, all your assignments, your progress in these assignments, and even a schedule of your meetings for the year. 

At the beginning of each meeting the notes from the last meeting are read aloud to the manager. This seemingly odd practice is of enormous value in keeping responsibilities clear and ensuring they are fulfilled. 

Consider this: how many times have decisions you and a staff member agreed should be done, not been carried out? Then read the chapter on Factbooks and start using them.

The book covers a wide array of thoughts ranging from uncommonly high commitment to satisfying a customer to what to watch out for in mergers or acquisitions. Many of the lessons were learned from Mandel’s successes, but equally from failures or missteps.  

What Mandel stresses, as seen from having been there, is that there is no difference between running a for-profit and a not-for-profit organisation. The only difference is the measures of success.

This book will enlighten you, remind you of things you already know, but perhaps don’t practice, and give you a perspective on doing business successfully. The approach works. Mandel proved it.

Readability:     Light ---+- Serious
Insights:         High -+--- Low
Practical:         High --+-- Low

- Fin24
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. Views expressed are his own.

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