by Chris Banescu –
In his groundbreaking book, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits, Robert Townsend, unconventional business executive and former CEO of Avis Rent-a-Car, provides us with witty and practical advice on how to tackle misguided organizational processes and attitudes that stifle people and undermine profitability. Townsend despised the constant organizational push by management towards additional bureaucratic processes and cumbersome institutional procedures that increased in size and complexity as a company grew. He also offered smart suggestions on how to keep the executives’ egos in check.
His first proposal on dealing with the bureaucratic danger is to make the CEO the initial guinea pig for institutional experimentation. Before anyone else in the company is forced to follow any new process or procedure, or fill out a new form or questionnaire, the chief executive must complete it in full first. Townsend surmised this approach alone would “kill a lot of bad ideas early.”
An additional safeguard to prevent runaway institutionalization required the hiring of a VP in charge of “anti-bureaucratization.” This fearless individual had to have a loud voice and “a passionate hatred for institutions and their practices.” Such VP’s main job would be to draw attention to and eliminate useless bureaucratic nonsense across a corporation.
“Related to this is a function that you might describe as a vice-president of anti-bureaucratization. He must have a loud voice, no fear, and a passionate hatred for institutions and their practices.
In addition to his regular duties, it’s his job to wonder around the company looking for new forms, new staff departments, and new reports. Whenever he finds one that smells like institutionalization, he screams “Horseshit!” at the top of his lungs. And he keeps shouting until the new whatever-it-is is killed, ” wrote Townsend.
And this recommendation works not only in for-profit corporations, but in other institutions, including religious organizations. Townsend suspected that a contributing factor to the long-term success of the Graham organization, founded and lead by famed Christian evangelist Billy Graham, was having such a fearless individual on staff. This man brought Graham down to earth whenever he took “himself too seriously.”
“Billy Graham has a man named Grady Wilson who yells “Horseshit” – however you say that in Baptist – at him whenever he takes himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful.”
“Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and them make sure he can be fired only for being too polite,” advised Townsend.
As we continue to see egotistical, selfish, hypocritical, and politically correct executives abuse their employees and run their organizations into the ground, the refreshing wit and wisdom of Robert Townsend, stand out as a powerful antidote to organizational dysfunction and megalomaniacal leaders. His down to earth and brutally honest advice is as useful today as it was decades ago. If only these executives would listen and have the humility and courage to act accordingly.