When Leaders Seek Leaders

Trained as an electrical engineer, George Buckley, 61, held executive positions at British Rail, Emerson and Brunswick Corp., where he [...]

January 30 2009 by Chief Executive


Trained as an electrical engineer, George Buckley, 61, held executive positions at British Rail, Emerson and Brunswick Corp., where he was CEO, before replacing the interim CEO at 3M after Jim McNerney left for Boeing. The Sheffield, UK-born executive is a proud Yorkshireman—“a Yorkshireman is a Scotsman who lost his generosity when he went south,” he deprecates. He thinks of himself as anything but an aloof leader, making a point of greeting people he encounters in the company by name. “I know these people intimately —not all of them in every circumstance, but I know their wives and families, enough that allows me to engage in conversation with them. What’s more, I care about them, however folksy and old-fashioned that might seem,” he adds.

His tenure with Emerson (he was president of its electrical motors division and the automotive and precision motors division, and also served as chief technology officer for Emerson’s worldwide group of motor and appliance-related businesses) was formative. “The two best things I ever did in my career were joining Emerson and leaving Emerson. I was fortunate to work for Chuck Knight, who I think is the best CEO produced in America in the last 50 years,” he says.

Buckley instituted Emerson’s approach to planning at both Brunswick and 3M. “It’s tough and incredibly well-managed. If you’re not competitive they eat you for breakfast, and usually without anesthetic,” he recalls wryly. “The uncompromising dealing with reality builds into people a passion to win. It’s not okay just to come second.”

The combination of candor and direct interaction between himself and people further down the organization, he believes, most moves the needle in terms of energizing people in open, forthright idea exchanges. Buckley spends about a fifth of his time as CEO on talent issues, teaching strategy and directing pipeline development. Twice a year for three to five days, 400 to 500 people will be reviewed with a view to what additional experiences they need. Each part of the organization develops an “issues letter” that outlines what it faces, thereby generating a discussion of what skills are most needed. “It’s like three-dimensional chess.” Unlike many CEOs, Buckley encourages all direct reports to be on external public boards. “I want them to see what it’s like to interact with a board of directors and to deal with other market conditions and other approaches to manufacturing and strategic development. Of course, there’s a danger that you may lose some people, but in the end there are far more positives than negatives.”

CE recently spoke with him about his approach to leadership development. 

What’s different at 3M?

If we can’t fill the pipeline with well-qualified, well-trained, talented people, not to mention produce the next CEO of 3M, then I’ll have failed in my job. Jim [McNerney] was an absolutely fabulous picker of people. I don’t necessarily think that Jim was a great developer of people, but to his great credit he put in good processes that we’ve continued to hone. Jim behaved as if he valued 41 experiences in a 40-year career. I don’t care for that approach. It’s important for a person to be in a job long enough to experience, say, an economic cycle, to see the impact of the decisions that he makes. People should live and breathe the outcome of their decision-making. So when I got here I stopped the musical chairs and forced people to stay in their positions longer. That’s a significant change.

We also changed our approach to talent internationally. We moved from what we call foreign-service employees that rotate through an organization, maybe after a year and a half or two years, into about half local and half rotating employees. There are several reasons for this. One, you give an opportunity and aspiration for locals to be able to get to the top job in their countries without necessarily having to move outside that country to the U.S. or somewhere else. But also, when you stop the musical chairs, you encourage the leaders in those positions. They now have a mission to not only complete the management of that unit, but also to develop the people who are coming up behind them. Forcing people to be in these jobs longer alters the incentive in the leadership development significantly.

Now, I’m not arguing that people should be in jobs 20 years. I don’t believe in that either. The ultimate time for a person to be in a job is around four years. Then there’s time for the job or the person to be refreshed. In my 40-year career, I have found that seven or eight experiences are preferable to having 40 experiences, because the relationships you build with customers, employees, suppliers, and the detailed market knowledge you acquire, is richer. When one has been in a slot a little longer, such experiences become important in a leader. 

What to look for in leadership

There are a million books on leadership. Ask 40 people; you’ll get 60 different opinions. It comes down to a few things. The person must be ethical, because if they’re not ethical, people won’t follow them. You need to monitor ethical behavior, not in an overt way, but in the course of what you do every day. Second, courage is important. You need people who will take tough decisions—in good times as well as bad. People, who can face reality, can see opportunity and peril, and deal with both as equal impostors, tend to have a strong stomach. As leaders we’re often faced with making quick decisions with insufficient information, and paralysis by analysis doesn’t work. Third, an ability to focus is critical. I’m a fairly religious man. There’s a great line by the Apostle Paul. When asked by the members of the congregation, “How can we remain good Christians?” he said, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” It’s the same for good managers. They need to keep their eyes on the prize.

Also, a leader doesn’t need to be jealous of his subordinates. One of the things that really makes my job easier is that I am surrounded by extremely able people—people who may even be better at what they do than I am at what I do. You need to have a knack for picking people and not being afraid of them, because one is much more likely to be successful by appointing absolutely great people into the jobs that report to you than you are by appointing buffoons. 

Vicissitudes of leadership

There is a Churchillian point about not getting discouraged. This doesn’t mean you don’t have down days, but as Churchill said, “Optimism is the ability to pass from one failure to another without the loss of self-confidence.” Having a rod of iron down your back helps in not being dissuaded by intermediate setbacks. You keep your eyes on the prize.