CEOs: What would you have done?

October 8, 2007

Steve Jobs, 1492.
 
Columbus Day is a day to celebrate business.
 
Columbus would have done well in today’s economy because he had something most CEOs and managers lack: courage to try new ways of doing things.
 
He had an idea. To get to the spices that were so valuable at the time, Columbus decided to go a different direction than the other spice ships. While the competition sailed south around the tip of Africa and then all the way north to India, Columbus planned to sail west. Assuming a round earth, he would end up in India in less time than it took going the “normal” route.
 
He needed to raise some cash to pay for this venture so he visited the King of Portugal. The King, being a conventional and cautious thinker (MBA, Harvard) decided to run the idea by his VP of operations (MBA, Cal Berkeley). “He’ll never make it. Bad idea. Play it safe and go around Africa.” So the King went to his marketing guy (BA, Anywhere). “Ok, let me play the Devil’s Advocate. What if the world is flat and he falls off the edge? You lose everything.” The King wasn’t done yet. He had an entire team of MBAs and Six Sigma Black Belts over in the Production Department. He called a meeting and ran the concept by them. This team is still gathering the data necessary to make a safe decision. The “project” has passed from generation to generation and I hear they are getting close to having something to present. The data needs just a little more refinement. The introduction of color printers in 1983 has greatly aided graphing contributing to process quality and improved efficiencies.
 
The King of Portugal told Columbus, “I’m not ready to do this just yet. But let’s stay in touch. Maybe next spring when things pick up a little we can revisit this proposal.”
 
Columbus, not one to quit, took his idea to the King of Spain. Spain was in fierce competition with Portugal. Things were different in Spain. They had a king but the Queen ran things. She was smart enough to see that the idea, on balance, was well worth the risk. “Give the guy a couple boats and a crew. If he gets to India, we get a huge return on investment. If not, well, we’re only out a couple boats. Let’s do it.”
 
Today, more than 500 years later we celebrate Columbus Day.
 
Even though:
He never made it to India.
He had no idea where he actually was when he hit land.
He “discovered” the entire western hemisphere though he never made it to the mainland.
He never brought back spices.
 
The morale of the story? Acting on new ideas is a good thing even if things don’t go exactly as planned. Spain ended up with just about everything south of Georgia.
 
And, women often make better managers.
 
Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog.
 

Chris Reich

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