Editor's Note: Gaylord resident Eric Lieberman, an attorney, a software company leader and a business counselor with SCORE, submitted the following column.
When my father learned that I had been drafted by a board of directors to lead a failing software company through a financial turnaround, he reacted: "But, what do you know about running a business?"
I began looking everywhere I could for advice. I devoured business books by the carload. I found good counsel in the talented people with whom I surrounded myself. They brought the experience and skills to the corporate table that I lacked. But, most unexpected was the wisdom that came one night when I drank whiskey with my chief financial officer, Paul Byrne, and watched the 1990 version of the movie "Memphis Belle."
The namesake of the movie is an Army B-17 World War II bomber whose crew had flown 24 missions into enemy territory. According to military policy, the crew could return home if they survived their 25th mission. The movie tells the story of that final mission.
Paul and I were in the early days of our trench warfare trying to save the company, so we felt a kinship with the pilot and crew of the Belle. As the whiskey disappeared and the movie unfolded, we began to see similarities with the business and people decision we had to make. When the movie ended, we had "Ten Rules of Business From The Memphis Belle."
Then, Paul came up with an 11th. I cussed and said "you can't just have an odd number like 11" -- so we replayed the movie in our heads and thought of nine more.
And thus we discovered the 20 lessons from The Memphis Belle. We had them printed up on little cards and handed them out to employees. We gifted them to strategic partners and customers. We printed them on posters and hung them in our offices. When we ran into a hard issue in the business we would refer to the Rules: more often than not there was a rule that was right on point.
I credit the rules with getting the company through difficult times. Even today, after a successful turnaround and a profitable sale of the company, I see the continued applicability of these rules to the difficult times and business decisions we all face today.
I love to describe the rules and present stories that demonstrate how they positively impacted business decisions. I'll illustrate Rule No. 1 to you below. If you'd like a complete list of the 20 Rules, send a request to me at email@example.com. And, if you get a chance, watch the movie ... it's a mission you will enjoy and benefit from. Let me know if you see rules in the movie that Paul and I didn't.
Rule No. 1: Don't pretend to do jobs you're not trained for!
Ironically, that rule echoes my father's comments to me. Val, the bombardier of the Belle, boasts that he has medical training. But when enemy fire wounds a crew member, the bombardier admits he's had far less medical expertise than he had claimed. Val proposes parachuting the wounded airman into enemy hands and hoping that he is rushed to a hospital. "Bad plan" say the rest of the crew, and the bombardier rises to the occasion and successfully treats his wounded mate despite his fear and sense of inadequacy. Despite his lack of training, Val had the courage and resolve to succeed.
The results are different for another Belle crew member that wants to try his untrained hand at one of the 50 caliber machine guns mounted on the Belle. Convincing the real gunner to let him try, he loses control of the gun and slices through another B-17 sending it crashing to the ground in flames and killing its crew. Sometimes, it is just plain dumb and dangerous to put people in charge that don't know what they are doing.
When I was picked to run the company I felt like Val, the bombardier, I clearly didn't appear to be a person with the right qualifications. I didn't have the usual training or experience to accomplish what I needed to do. And yet, the stars aligned, the spirits blessed me and the dog didn't eat my homework -- I succeeded.
I had a young man working for me who had started in the company in a low-level position supporting the company's internal computer systems and worked his way up the ladder to head the information technology department. Despite his technology training, he proved to be a "Jack of all trades". He was loyal to the company, a great leader and had a "can do" spirit that was unbelievable. Point him in the direction of a mission --o and he would accomplish it without fail. I recognized his talents superseded any particular training he had, and I was able to deploy him in a variety of key company positions well beyond IT services. He was a big contributor to the success of the company. If I had limited him to his trained position - IT - I wouldn't have been able to take advantage of the broader range of skills and talent that this "Jack" had.
Lesson learned: When you are selecting selecting internal or external candidates for a particular assignment, carefully consider whether you are hiring an unqualified machine gunner who will create a disaster or a candidate that will succeed regardless of the paper qualifications.
Don't ignore candidates who might have strengths, talent and drive that equip them for success despite some holes in their resume. Always consider whether the obvious qualifications for a job are really the true qualities that will define success. Don't simply evaluate candidates -- always test the premises of the criteria you are using to evaluate the candidate. Anyone can check off the boxes on job criteria -- a true leader goes deeper than that.
That's the first of the Memphis Belle rules. There are 19 more and I hope to get the chance to describe them in some future column. In the meantime, here's Rule No. 20: Regardless of how hopeless the situation may seem, remember to pack the champagne -- you may come home alive!
The "Scoring in Business" columns provided by SCORE's Tip of the Mitt chapter appear the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month on the Business page.