“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
I wrote Einstein’s quote on the white board to kick off our first class discussion in a course I taught this spring at Columbia Business School, on start-up strategies for large companies.
“Only after you’ve defined a problem precisely,” I told my MBA students, “can you even start thinking about how to solve it.”
What I didn’t say was how apropos this quote had been to defining my own predicament. I’d been living inside a corporate cocoon for nearly my entire career. Over the years since business school, I’d taken a series of increasingly exciting, demanding and fulfilling corporate jobs − yet I’d never stopped admiring entrepreneurs.
In fact, during the latest and (I hoped) greatest phase of my corporate career, I’d increasingly regarded and styled myself a “corporate entrepreneur.” That’s a term I vastly prefer to the more fashionable “intrapreneur,” which strikes me as sending the wrong message.
Making the call to leave my most fulfilling job to date, as Executive Director for Global Innovation and New Models at GE, had been one of the most difficult decisions of my life.
At first I told myself predictable things like: 1) I wasn’t getting any younger. 2) If not now, when? And 3) our youngest kid is graduating from college, so now might be a great time to make the leap.
But what made the difference between thinking about leaving a great job and actually doing it was this: After admiring so many entrepreneurs I’d worked with over the years, I’d finally figured out what being an entrepreneur might mean for me.
My own personal entrepreneurial journey was defined, I realized, by the size of the problem I needed to help other folks solve. For lack of a better term, call it “The Two Guys And A Dog In A Garage Problem,” based on the unceasing laments of many people who work for big companies. It goes like this:
“We’re getting killed by two guys and a dog in a garage. What can we do to be more like those guys? Because they’re out there eating our lunch today. And if we don’t figure out some way to compete, they’ll eat our breakfast and dinner tomorrow.”
June 1, 2015, marked my first anniversary of living out here on my own, helping a new crop of clients define, refine and then figure out how to solve their own versions of “The Two Guys And A Dog In A Garage Problem.” In practical terms, I serve as an independent consultant for big companies that want to think, act and win more like the startups they once were. I work with executives who ready to take action to head off the risk of their companies becoming dinosaurs.
I’ve been intimately familiar with this subject for years. Ever since graduating from business school, I lived and worked happily, successfully, comfortably and for the most part dynamically inside the belly of the beast − except for one scary, often miserable, yet informative and formative year I spent trying and failing to keep a small shaky private-equity-backed leveraged buy-out from going under.
With that unpleasant reminder that little is stable, steady or glamorous about entrepreneurship, I’d devoted my entire career to creatively marketing the products and services of really big Fortune 100 companies.
My first job after college had been at a big company, helping to manage a hotdog, bacon and baloney factory for Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft. That was kind of fun, but so smelly I couldn’t wait to apply to and finish business school, which I did while still on the job.
After not so reluctantly abandoning the growth field of cold cuts and processed meats for the even saltier world of snacks as VP of Marketing for the Frito-Lay U.S. division of PepsiCo, I had the great good fortune of learning the immutable principles of Classic Marketing from a true master of the art, Roger Enrico. First as marketing chief, then as CEO of PepsiCo, Roger succeeded in lifting an always innovative and hugely creative big company to new heights of edgy envelope-pushing.
At Pepsi I scored my own personal best − inventing the Super Bowl halftime show. That required successfully pitching Roger Enrico to ask Michael Jackson to perform at the first show in an iconic series.
After that I pulled my first professional pivot − transposing my insights on customers and markets from packaged goods to financial services, first at Citibank, then at Morgan Stanley, and finally as a VP of Marketing at GE Capital (GE Money).
What was the big takeaway in the transition from cold cuts to salty snacks to banking, retirement and investment products? Most of the marketing precepts and principles that work for packaged goods apply equally to financial services.
So, I thought, why not try yet another personal and professional pivot within GE? What about pivoting from marketing financial services to fostering and nurturing creativity and innovation deep inside the global industrial sandbox, where GE plays best and for keeps?Thatidea had increasingly become the focus of GE CEO Jeff Immelt, as he massively and strategically repositioned the century-old company.
My new role involved developing and servicing power plants and utilities. It also included designing, building and selling locomotives and jet engines to clients around the world. And I worked on creating an entirely new universe of products and services based on the rapidly-emerging “Internet of Things,” which GE called “The Industrial Internet.”
During my final phase at GE, I played a meaningful and constructive role as one of those people most passionate about carrying out Jeff Immelt’s mandate and mantra: to reinvent GE as more global, nimble, agile and entrepreneurial, less financially focused.
Only after successfully, seamlessly making that segue could I consider myself a “corporate entrepreneur” in mind and in spirit. While full-fledged self-made entrepreneurs might dismiss the label “corporate entrepreneur” as a contradiction in terms, I believe it highlights a significant, but often overlooked, opportunity for large companies to innovate for growth.
On the last day in my headquarters office in Fairfield, Connecticut, having deliberately foregone the corny pleasure of a goodbye party, I found myself thoughtfully packing boxes. Those boxes served as concrete examples of my very last corporate perk – free shipment of my stuff to my house. Something about putting all my personal stuff into boxes and taping those cardboard lids shut reminded me of one of my more memorable moments at GE, not long after my arrival in 2008.
I’d been invited to take the world-famous Executive Development Course (EDC) course at Crotonville. It’s an intensive offering limited to high-potential rising executives. During the course, I and some other execs spent a high-stakes afternoon standing in the center of the legendary Pit, answering questions popped like grapeshot from a casually dressed Jeff Immelt on a seat in the bleachers below.
The first question Jeff lobbed in my direction was to define my dream role at GE. I blurted out two words: “Change agent.” That answer prompted his follow-on question: How did I define change agent personally, in my own career, professionally and organizationally in the context of GE?
I spoke with real conviction about the personal and professional challenges of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I talked about summoning up the courage to take on a role that would invite some degree of passive or active resistance, even derision, at a place like GE. I knew this would come − despite the continual mandate for change that was the hallmark of GE under Immelt and almost all his predecessors.
On the day I finally left headquarters, I was glad I could say with a straight face: “I’ve done the work I came here to do.” I’d fulfilled the ambition I articulated to Jeff in the heat of the moment from the floor of The Pit.
I’d played a meaningful role to help GE figure out what GE needed to be next − in the not-too-distant as well as the far-off future.
Having done that, a reasonable question to ask was, “Okay, what next?” Fortunately, by that afternoon I felt that I’d finally defined the big problem. Now I could start offering tailored, replicable solutions to that problem.
Looking back on that moment from the vantage point of a year later, it feels pretty darned good to not just have survived but to actually have thrived through the first year. It was occasionally harrowing, often exhilarating, always fulfilling.
It was a year of finally eating my own cooking as a passionate proselytizer for the potential of big companies − which really means tapping the potential of people inside big companies, to become more agile, nimble, creative and innovative.
The hard irony is this. Most of us still naturally associate safety, security and stability with living the 9-to-5 life at big companies. But given the rapid state of change today, being an incumbent is anything but safe, secure, stable or steady in an age marked by the constant need to innovate or – to say it more bluntly – eat or be eaten by more agile and nimble competitors on their way up.
After a year on the outside, I can safely say I was well-prepared by virtue of the knowledge, skills and, most important of all, the passionate conviction I’d acquired over the years to get the particular predicament both I and my clients found themselves in. Knowing the problem intimately serves as the perfect starting and vantage point for an original way to address the truly massive challenges at hand.
To succinctly summarize the problem was the critical first step toward even thinking about solving it:
All big incumbent companies face the often-daunting challenge of trying on the one hand to emulate while simultaneously using their own strengths to compete with smaller, newer, nimbler new entrants.
That’s why, at the moment I wrote the Einstein quote on the white board, I knew the problem we had collectively agreed to take on was much bigger, more urgent and more critical than it had seemed just one year ago, on the day I took a deep breath and walked, with an excited spring in my step, out of GE and into the uncertain and unknown. Not only is this problem critical to large companies, it may be the key to the survival of the entire modern economy.
To explore possible and potential solutions to the big problem, stay tuned to this upcoming series of once-a-month blogs. Until then, I’ll leave you with one final and I hope inspiring thought.
Note that Einstein made sure to say that even if his life “depended on it,” he’d keep the ratio of time and effort spent on problem definition to problem solution at 55 to 5, or 11 to 1. Based on my experiences over the past year, I’d venture to say the famous Father of Relativity had that equation absolutely nailed.