Jayashantha Jayawardhana asserts that a tough boss is key to business success

It is a widely held belief that only if the senior executives are tough will a company achieve and sustain high performance indicators. Though some may think ‘tough’ means ‘ruthless,’ this is far from the truth. In fact, tough is all about being rigorous.

In his bestseller ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t,’ Jim Collins emphasises that it is the rigorous executives and not ruthless ones who build great companies that endure.

So how does one become a rigorous manager?

Collins cites three research backed practical disciplines you need to cultivate in your managerial career to become a rigorous senior executive as follows.

RECRUITMENT When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking. The ultimate throttle on growth for any company is not markets, technology, competition or products. Rather, it is the company’s ability to attract and retain the right number of right people.

But few senior executives see it that way – many simply and wrongly regard people as mere cogs in a big machine that are readily replaceable. That’s foolish because a technical skill is only one of the many attributes an individual brings to the table.

Whether you’re leading a startup and looking for people as founding members, an existing business looking to expand or simply wanting to fill a vacancy, you have to scout around for the best candidates in terms of talent, enthusiasm, passion, attitude, and interpersonal and communication skills. This must be emphasised because at every stage of its life cycle, the skills and traits required for a business vary.

Savvy senior executives don’t settle for any applicant in the absence of the right candidate because they know that hiring the wrong people could lead to myriad problems, which will consume too much of their time going forward.

Walter Bruckart, a VP at Circuit City, is reported to have asked his CEO Alan Wurtzel: “Alan, I’m really wearing down trying to find the exact right person to fill this position or that position. At what point do I compromise?”

Wurtzel had replied without hesitation: “You don’t compromise. We find another way to get through until we find the right people.” The fact that Circuit City filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2008 over an erroneous strategy cannot invalidate his take on hiring people.

MANAGEMENT If you hire good people, you really don’t have to manage them – you only have to guide, teach and lead them. If you encounter a situation where you feel you should closely monitor and tightly manage someone, the odds are remarkably high that you’ve made a hiring mistake. At some point in your executive career, you would no doubt have waited far too long against your better judgement for someone to improve his or her behaviour – only to realise in the end that you’d waited in vain for a lost cause.

Most of the time, senior executives resort to this sort of action arising from what Jack Welch calls ‘false sympathy.’ But it does more harm and very little good for an organisation in the long term. In fact, as celebrated life coach Marshall Goldsmith says, people will change their behaviour only if they genuinely want to.

Collins adds that “letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people as they inevitably find themselves compensating for the inadequacies of the wrong people. Worse still, it can drive away the best people.” While it is important to remember that the lack of skills is only one among many factors at play, letting go of the wrong people is being fair to everyone. Once your intuition identifies the dead weight, the best course of action is to look sharp.

BEST MAN Put your best people to handle your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems. While many executives are happy to have their best people working on the thorniest issues, good managers do it the other way around.

In the early 1960s, Joe Cullman who was the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris saw international markets as the single best opportunity for long-term growth, notwithstanding the fact that the company derived less than one percent of its revenue from overseas at the time.

As Cullman mulled over the best strategy for developing the company’s international operations, he had an epiphany: it was a matter of who rather than what or how. So he pulled his best man George Weissman off the domestic operations arm and put him in charge of international operations.

Some of his colleagues who could not figure out the real reason for Cullman’s decision felt it may have been a punishment transfer. Yet, after two decades, Forbes magazine considered Cullman’s decision to move Weissman to the smallest part of the business as a stroke of genius.

So let me wrap this up with a question: Do you honestly think you’re a rigorous boss?