In addition to interviews with the full executive team and others who were identified as important stakeholders, Nichols recommended three separate interviews with the leader himself. This was unconventional and some would argue an extravagant use of executive time, but if challenged on this point, Nichols would remind his client of the pivotal importance of the assessment his company had been hired to perform. “What can a single interview tell us?” Nichols explained to the Board of Directors. “Men and women who have long held leadership roles have a difficult time expressing their true intentions, even”—and here he paused for emphasis—“when that is their specific desire.” The first interview elicits the well-developed positions which the leader has developed and honed over the years. In the second, he begins to express his genuine doubts and in the third, you begins to a express his true hopes for his legacy." Meyers typically won this argument for what executive team does not thrill to a description of a thorough process? This case was no exception.
The CEO in question, who we shall refer to as B--, was an engineer by training and tended to view his company's challenges as a technical problem. Before he had taken over the helm of the company, he had an impressive record as a practical scientist and held the rights on several patents that had been crucial to the early development of semiconductors. He had turned to management because, he claimed in multiple interviews, it “offered a more interesting problem.” People, he said, were messy machines. The trick was to organize them in a way to ensure maximum yield. All these “forces” by which he meant, energy, motivation, talent, could be defined and organized if you faced the problem objectively, dispassionately.
Nichols didn’t disagree, but he had heard it all before. The CEO was famous for applying engineering principles and modes of analysis to the messy world of organizational development. His proposed enactment of these principles was seen as a key to the company’s success and like all successes, led to a wave interest in his analytical method among schools and other companies. But like all powerful theories, it met with equal resistance, derided as “social engineering” by detractors including former employees who had attacked the office environment as a technocratic sweatshop.
Even now, as Nichols settled onto the black couch, B-- stood before him, hands raised, ready to lecture, command, decide, shape the destinies of thousands. “Let us,” he said, “start with the assumption that I am a blank slate.”