The Uncommon Wisdom of Listening

Do you know Robert Joly? Neither do I, but I would like to meet him, have a dram of scotch or twenty with him, pick his brain a little and ask him how he came to such uncommon wisdom. I say “uncommon wisdom” because he appears to be a man unaffected by success whose curiosity about things makes him unique amongst the current crop of chief executive officers in corporate America. And there are lessons to be learned for all of us from how he conducted himself and how he interacted with his immediate staff and his employees.

I may be a poor source for critiquing executive style mostly because I am an attorney by education and training. Attorneys are not known for being team players. They are trained to accept a specific problem, take end to end responsibility for correcting it and moving on to the next narrow problem. There is seldom consideration of the “big picture” or even the “long game.” Get in, fix it and get out and if somebody’s feelings get hurt, tough – not your problem. I was fortunate that after I left the law department for the executive group that I had a very skilled officer who coached me on how to manage people. The most important lesson she taught me was that you don’t have to have all of the answers and that the people who work for you are anxious to demonstrate their own skills given even the slightest encouragement. It’s always amazing how much you can learn by asking questions and listening to the answers. There is a lesson in here so please be patient.

A Wall Street Journal article on April 24th highlighted Robert Joly – the current Chief Executive Officer of Best Buy. It detailed how Mr. Joly – an outsider to Best Buy – entered his new position at a time when the company’s stock was plummeting, morale was in the tank and the “big box” store was encountering voracious competition from online providers. Oh, and to add to that misery, the original founder of Best Buy was engaged in a hostile attempt to take the company private. That’s like playing three-dimensional chess against a Cray supercomputer.

Most executives who are on the five-year rotation track to larger positions generally enter, reshuffle the executive team, hire a high price consulting firm, develop a “hockey stick” five year plan where earnings are flat until the final year and move on before the five years are up. But this was real trouble. Best Buy was marching steadily towards non-existence. So Mr. Joly eschewed the boardroom shuffle, the outsider experts and the five-year “hockey stick” plan. He needed to learn “retail” and so he started where “retail” meets the road. He became a “CEO-in-Training” in the company’s retail stores. And this is an important part. He put on a nametag on the company salesmen’s uniform (khaki slacks and blue polo shirt) and the nametag identified him as “CEO-in-Training. This wasn’t some Undercover Boss show; this was the real deal in order to survive. He wanted the employees to know that he was the boss but that he was there to learn from them. So he spent days working the floor, asking questions of the staff – what works, what doesn’t – and probing for what was missing as seen by the retail staff. He listened, asked more questions, listened some more and began to formulate a plan based on real life retail experience. Not his experience, but the real life experience of those who do the job.

And then like “the little girl who thought she could and so she did,” Mr. Joly implemented changes to Best Buy’s stores, advertising, online websites and other elements that matched needs and capabilities. The same process allowed Mr. Joly to respond to the shut down of America’s economy by the politicians (few if any of them had ever actually held a job in retail) caused by the China virus pandemic. And along the way, he stopped the hostile takeover and made an ally of the original founder who was leading the takeover effort.

I don’t know what the future holds for Mr. Joly or Best Buy but I do know that he did the single most important factor for a successful manager – he listened, he asked questions, he formulated solutions based on real life experience of those on the front line. And if any of the morons running this country ever listened, Mr. Joly delivered a powerful message about saving a democracy.

Now, contrast Mr. Joly’s actions with those of President Joe Biden and Vice-president Camomile Harris in dealing with the crisis at our southern border. Mr. Biden, by his actions, threw open the border and encouraged migrants from Mexico and Central America to cross illegally. And came they did, by the tens of thousands. They overwhelmed border security. They overwhelmed immigration. They overwhelmed health agencies. They overwhelmed housing agencies. It is tantamount to an invasion. State and local officials are overrun. It has become a new pathway for illegal drugs, human trafficking, terrorists and disease (mostly COVID 19). No matter what you call it, it is a crisis, a human disaster, and a blight. And the two people most responsible for it have turned their backs. Neither will acknowledge that they have created a crisis. Neither will acknowledge the size and scope of the problem. Neither has a solution for the disaster they have caused. And neither will visit the border to see first hand the catastrophe they have caused. They will not talk to officials on the ground. They will not talk to medical personnel seeking to stem the tide of disease and devastation. They will not talk to the citizens in the path of these hordes. And they will not talk to the press.

Unlike Mr. Joly, there is nothing retail about their response. They think they already know everything when in fact they know nothing. Mr. Biden told the nation that Ms. Harris would take the lead on dealing with situation on the border and ever since Ms. Harris has been backing away from any responsibility for the mess. You can imagine the conversation between Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden in the aftermath of his announcement – thank God she was wearing a facemask so you couldn’t see her expression of dismay. This is how I imagined it to have been:

Ms. Harris (slamming the door to the Oval Office behind her): What the hell were you thinking. I am the next president of the United State and you are not going to stick me with that tar baby. (For those of you forced to endure a teachers union led primary education in the Portland Public Schools, a tar baby refers to a problem that get worse when you try to solve it.)

Mr. Biden (obviously flustered): Now Kami, it’s not as bad as you think. . .

Ms. Harris: That’s Ms. Vice-President, Joe. And I don’t need any “mansplainin” from some old hack who can’t say hello without a teleprompter.

Mr. Biden: I didn’t mean to . . .

Ms. Harris (interrupting): If this is your way of getting back at me for implying you were a racist during the primaries, get over it. I’m not doing this. I’m not going to the border. I’m not going to meet with the border patrol – a known bunch of racists. And I’m not going to answer to the press for a problem you created. You had better figure out a way to fix this or its going to get real ugly for you.

Mr. Biden: I don’t know what you want me to do. . .

Ms. Harris: Of course you don’t. Fix it or else. (Storming out the door.)

Shortly thereafter there were several clarifications on Ms. Harris’s responsibilities none of which involved dealing with the crisis at the border. She is now going to investigate the “root causes” of people from Central America migrating to the United States. No, Ms. Harris won’t be anywhere near the problem or the solution. She will continue to be the most purposefully ignorant politician in the land.

In a land awash with capable people like Robert Joly, we keep electing the least capable politicians like Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.