Peter F. DiGiammarino: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 7th, 2014 by bobmorris

D13_041_019Peter DiGiammarino is a senior executive with 35 years of success leading businesses that target tight public and private markets around the world. In addition to running companies, he serves public, private, private-equity-owned, and venture-capital-backed software and services firms as an adviser and/or board member and has consistently helped them to achieve their full potential to perform and grow. As a leader who has served successful companies in the role of CEO, Peter knows how to develop and lead teams of high-powered, driven professionals. His emphasis is to create and implement plans that are true to the organization’s market, offerings, competence, and purpose.

Peter currently serves as Chairman of Compusearch and advises a dozen other organizations as CEO of IntelliVen. He is based in San Francisco, California. He is also adjunct professor in the Organization Development program at the University of San Francisco where the workbook he authored, Manage to Lead: Seven Truths to Help You Change the World, is used to teach a course he developed on Organization Analysis and Strategy. His book, Manage to Lead: Seven Truths to Help You Change the World, was published by IntelliVen (July 2013).

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Morris: Before discussing Manage to Lead (in Part 2), a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

DiGiammarino: My father. He and my mother raised six of us; I am the oldest of a generation on my father’s side. He was a high school teacher, football coach, and camp director who in mid-career got his PhD from Syracuse University in Education, became an assistant superintendent of a public school system, and taught at a teacher’s college. He guided us to be interested in new technology and tried constantly himself to use the latest and greatest to improve the work of teachers. His master’s thesis in 1954 was on the potential for the felt board to improve teaching. In the ‘60s he was the AV (Audio Visual) guy who brought home a projector and movies on reels for us to watch well before the days of VHS and DVRs, and in the ‘70s he led a team to design and implement a mini-computer based system to keep track of student data that is still ahead of its time.

He taught that a smart and motivated person could figure out how to do anything (work on a car, repair a washing machine, fix a computer) … and, further, that there is no point in figuring something out if you don’t also share it with others; starting with your siblings!

He had reservations about the big, bad business world so stayed in academia his entire career. We never seemed to have much money. I thought it must not be too hard to do well and vowed to one day have more than enough financially.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

DiGiammarino: Charles Rossotti has been my career-long mentor. He was one of a team of five that left the group known as McNamara’s Whiz Kids in the ‘60s to start American Management Systems (AMS) in 1970. I joined 7-years later in an annual wave of aggressive MBA recruiting. We grew AMS to a $1B and 10,000 people over 20 years. As our CEO, Charles modeled constant experimentation, learning, growth, and performance with intelligence, teamwork, and drive.

In the mid-80s the $30M/year unit I had grown from start-up was underperforming relative to plan. Charles called on me more frequently to review status and plans but didn’t take over; instead he showed interest, confidence, and patience and offered help and support. He knew we could get back on track…and we went on to generate nearly $200M/year within the next decade.

Charles went on to serve as Commissioner of the US Internal Revenue Service in a period of massive modernization and is now a Senior Advisor at The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest Private Equity investment firms. We got a chance to work together closely again in 2005 when he paved the way for me enter as CEO of a Carlyle portfolio company that has had a terrific run from the time we got involved.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

DiGiammarino: After 20 years at AMS felt I knew too much; every day people came to me with problems that were too easy for me to help them solve. I wasn’t learning anything new. I wanted more challenges and figured it was time for me to run an entire company, not just a large business unit. In 1996 I let myself be recruited to be president and COO of a $200M public software company.

I quickly found that I had a lot more to learn. While I had been successful at AMS, it was almost too easy to scale an organization that performs and grows in an environment that was familiar and insular. I knew I had figured out some useful and important things about growing past the start-up phase and crossing over to being a credible business but needed to test, hone, and further develop my ideas before I could credibly share them with others. It was at this point that I began a systematic process to immerse myself in different companies, in different markets, at different stages of evolution, scale, and business model in order to enrich and apply anew what I had learned first at AMS.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

DiGiammarino: I attended the University of Massachusetts as an undergraduate because I was accepted only to UMass. I vowed that I would never let important things in life “happen to me” again. Instead, I would figure out what I wanted and then make it happen. On the last day of high school I decided to graduate in the top few percent at UMass and go to MIT for graduate school. Which is what I did.

At UMass I was accepted into a new interdisciplinary major for upper-class students who wanted to pursue an unconventional course of study. Even though the program was open only to juniors and seniors, I entered as a freshman because I wanted to study computers and there was no other option for undergrads to take computer courses. I recruited as my advisor Dr. Wogrin, a 20-year veteran of teaching at Yale and Chair of the UMass Computer Science Department. He became interested in what I was trying to do and helped me to develop a four-year plan to take Masters computer science courses as well as to study math and economics (which is really applied math!) in order to prepare to next study study business (which is really applied economics!).

For my senior project, which enabled me to graduate with honors, I designed, and led a team to implement, a system students could use online to find and register for courses that fulfilled specific requirements, such as being well-liked by other students, meeting a core requirement, and not held before 10:00 AM. In doing this I experienced first-hand the potential different disciplines have to create enormous value that did not previously exist when brought to together to bear on real-world problems.

From the interdisciplinary program I also learned to:

o Plan
o Be accountable to a plan
o Implement a governance structure; by having to review my progress against plan with my advisor twice a semester
o Master bureaucracy
Note: For example, I got the Computer Science Department and the interdisciplinary program to each pay half of the increase in costs relative to state school tuition to finance a semester of study at MIT in my junior year.
o Set high goals and then drive to achieve them no matter how lofty
o Follow through on commitments
o Work hard; because it generates worthy results and it is a waste of time and money not to
o Be comfortable being different
o Appreciate the value of outstanding counsel and advice
o Take full advantage of available resources

Conventional education tracks the best students to learn more and more about less and less as they go from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s and then on to a PhD in a subject area. The limit to this approach is that a student learns everything about nothing. Those that follow this path tend to be extraordinarily deep in their chosen specialty and remarkably inept on topics outside of it as they are intimidated by their own lack of knowledge relative to what they know in their field.

An interdisciplinary program prepares the best students:

o To learn a great deal in any field they want and so are not inclined to get good at only one subject but easily develop depths of competence in whatever they want or need to know.

o To be enriched by the insights, ideas and opportunities that unfold from the blending of competency depths, empowering them to synergize and innovate to create value far beyond what could previously have been imagined.

Upon graduation from UMass I went on to the MIT Sloan School of Management where I studied Information Systems, Strategy, and Organization Development (OD). I took all the OD classes I could because when I arrived I came across a study of alums 20-years out that said the number one course of study they wished they had had more of by far was OD! I had the opportunity to study with some of the second generation founders of the field including a course from Richard Beckhard and a class from Ed Schein.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

DiGiammarino: I wish I knew when I left school that the most important career decision you make is to determine what you want to accomplish by when. My goal out of Sloan was to start a company and be a millionaire by the time I was 30-years old. If I had aimed to be worth $10M or $1B my life would have been totally different. I had no idea how defining the goal would be and, if I had known I might have picked different targets, or at least thought about it more before making such a major commitment!

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

DiGiammarino: Executive Suite; filmed in 1953, the year I was born, and shows how anyone can be CEO if s/he is good at something important to the business, knows where s/he wants it to head, gets a top team of others with great and relevant competencies on board, and motivates them to apply their great and diverse strengths to progress towards the common goal. In a nutshell, that’s exactly what it takes to be a great leader: set direction, align resources, motivate action.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

DiGiammarino: Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone; the story of early pioneers migrating west in the face of great obstacles. It becomes clear that there is nothing like sheer determination, wits, and perseverance to get you to achieve your goal.

Demian by Hesse: Demian wanted only “to try to live in accord with the inner promptings of his true self” and couldn’t imagine why “it was so very difficult”.

Several who accomplished much (e.g., Steve Jobs, Daniel Goleman, Krishna Dass, Ram Dass) spent time in an Indian ashram with Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba just as they were starting their careers. Guru Baba got to know them each well and used his status as their yogi to give them permission to be who they really are.

Most people have to figure out for themselves how to chart the course of a fulfilled life. The best leaders strive to play a role like that of the enlightened yogi and assign those in their organization to do what they are good at doing while also getting them to want to do what they are good at, and like, doing.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

DiGiammarino: Agreed. I defy anyone to do as well with my ideas as I will do…and if they do, they probably deserve what comes their way as a result…and a reward that really is deserved.

Morris: From Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

DiGiammarino: Right. Peter Drucker (who I refer to as “the original PeterD”!) said a lot of wise things and he said some of them in different ways. The quote of his along these lines that I live by is remembered in my mind as: Are you doing the right thing or just doing the thing right? Every day it is wise to take stock the night before, or first thing in the morning, to be sure the bulk of that day’s time will be spent on what is right and best to do.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

DiGiammarino: Generally I agree but it can be taken too far. A leader can get caught-up in an elusive quest to orchestrate the “collective capacity” to arrive at an answer that takes every input into account and that pleases everyone. Such a process invariably fails and leaves the team feeling a lack of leadership and unfulfilled.

A leader needs to know when to stop collecting input, and trying to architect a solution that will appease all, and make the hard decision, get others on board despite its flaws, and get going.

Furthermore, some decisions, such as what an organization should strive to do next, need an answer in order to define the leader…i.e., whoever answers the questions is the leader; a collective process to facilitate to an answer leaves the organization leaderless which may work for a while but eventually fails.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

DiGiammarino: Organizations that seek to grow need to constantly try new things and stop doing what doesn’t work and do more of what does work. Failure from trying something new that doesn’t work should not be punished but it must lead to learning. Punishment should be reserved for making the same mistake over and over.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

DiGiammarino: It is ego-gratifying, and against human nature to not, dive-in to make sure things go right…which works fine in the early going because sheer brilliance, energy, and drive allows a leader to get their organization to $15 to 20M but not to $50M on track to $200M. Leaders of early stage ventures rarely figure out without help that that they are their own constraint to growth and that only through delegation and development will a path to significant scale of performance and growth be realized.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

DiGiammarino: John Kotter, in Leading Change, does a great job explaining eight reasons change initiatives fail. In my mind the number-one reason is lack of management attention. If management pays attention, whichever of the Kotter’s eight are the problem will be discovered and dealt with, but most managers have little patience for the hard work of seeing big ideas through to completion. Instead they are off to the next big idea or to address the crises du jour, which will someday be the very initiative they should have been paying attention to all along so that it comes out right to begin with.

There are three things that leaders need to do to be sure the plans and resources put in place are successful. One is to govern the effort (i.e., pay attention and guide); another is to track performance to know how things are going relative to expectation, and third is to communicate:

o From leaders to those who are to change behavior so they will know what they are to do differently, and why, which causes them to decide they want to help, and then they will act accordingly.

o From those impacted to leaders with questions, concerns, and ideas.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Top business school students tend to head towards careers in finance to make big money fast. The best students should head towards operations instead so they can learn to build, run and grow organizations that add new value and impact, create jobs, and change the world. Such a strategy to scale would be good for the world and business schools should help make it a reality.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

DiGiammarino: There are nascent but irreversible trends underway now that leaders of for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations must face:

o For-profit organizations that do well also need to do good in order to satisfy employees, customers, and investors (e.g.: Toms, Patagonia).

o Not-for-profits are being required by funders, grantors, and employees to operate and scale more like well-run for-profits rather than being the playthings of their founders, boards, and executive directors.

o Government organizations are being required to do more with tighter budgets and intelligent application of new technology to better serve political and popular interests under real fiscal constraints.

All three trends increase the complexity and scale of operations and further evidence the need to better manage to lead.

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Peter cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites: web site that features a blog of tips and tools for getting organizations on track to fulfill their potential to perform and grow; subscribe to receive 2-3 short posts per month at no cost) (sample vision, mission, values) (HBR: strategy & change) (strategy & leading change) change) books for non-profits) assessment of national financial activity) (international site connecting MBAs and aspiring MBAs with key topics and each other) (for nonprofits) (graphic tools for strategy, change, et al) inquiry) (evaluation and measurement) (emotional intelligence) (cultural transformation/values) of life, development tools for people and organizations) and other resources for CEOs)

TWITTER accounts to consider following:


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