Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Lynn Blodgett, president and chief executive of ACS, an I.T. services subsidiary of Xerox. He says that even in huge organizations, it’s important to have employees at all levels feel “accountable for profits, revenue and customer satisfaction.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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In a Big Company, Make Everyone an Entrepreneur
Bryant: What were some early lessons for you?
Blodgett: I come from a family of nine kids — six boys and three girls. Because it was a large family, we didn’t have a lot. One of the things that we did every Christmas was that my parents would say we had to earn our Christmas money. And so they were the venture capitalists. They’d give us $5, and then we would go buy wholesale wrapping paper and take orders and resell them and turn that $5 into $25.
It was a great thing, because you learned about customers, learned about keeping your word, getting the orders delivered on time.
Bryant: What about your first kind of formal management role?
Blodgett: We worked for my parents, and I did kind of supervisory things there, and then worked for the company that bought my parents’ business and actually ended up running that business.
Bryant: What was the company?
Blodgett: My parents started a computer business back in the ’60s and grew that into a nice little regional business. There’s a story behind that. Earlier, my mother worked for the phone company and worked at night, and she had a baby daughter, her seventh child — her name was Nancy. When she was four months old, her heart stopped. And I was 10 years old. I grabbed her and went to my brother, who was 12, and we got her to this clinic and they got her heart started again. But she had a lot of brain damage from that, so she had to have somebody taking care of her and feeding her all of the time. [She died at 13 from cardiac arrest.] My mother wanted to work, but she needed to be at home, and so she leased a key punch machine, put it in my sister’s bedroom and started to do data entry, and that’s where many of the principles that we operate on today were formed — how to compensate people, data controls and process control.
All the kids in our family learned data-entry key punching in my sister’s bedroom, literally at my mom’s knee. We grew up on a computer farm, as my parents called it, because it was back in the ’60s and it was one of those rare moments when, as key punch machines evolved into computers and our business grew, we were able to associate with these brilliant people from M.I.T. and Harvard. It was a wonderful education.
Bryant: You mentioned that you ran your parents’ business after it was sold. How old were you, and how many employees did you have?
Blodgett: I was 27, and we had close to 1,000.
Bryant: How did you handle that big leap into management?
Blodgett: You know, I just used a lot of the stuff we really kind of formulated back in my sister’s bedroom. We eventually had a key punch machine in each of our bedrooms, so the trick question was, well, how do you pay the kids? Because if you pay hourly, you’re going to have to have a lot of verification and that kind of thing. So they came up with an incentive system that was essentially self-policing. I believe that a really important management principle is that if you get the incentives aligned, people will motivate themselves far better than you’ll ever motivate them. But, again, you have to get the incentives right.
Bryant: Just the financial incentives?
Blodgett: It’s not only financial. It’s being able to feel like they have a level of control over their destiny, that they are valued in what they do, that they’re being successful, that they’re contributing. Those things are actually probably more important than the money. But you’ve got to get the money right, too.
Bryant: So how did it work in your house with the key punch machines?
Blodgett: I was terrible. I’ve never been a good typist. But all my brothers and one of my sisters were exceptional. So my brothers resented me for getting paid the same as they did even though they did three times as much. Pretty soon my mom and dad both said: “Well, we have to make this more fair. We have to tie it more to what you do.” And because it’s a computer, it can provide all the evidence of the work — productivity and quality — that’s accomplished.
What happened with that incentive program was that I learned very quickly that that was not for me. I was never going to make any money doing that job. And so this notion of self-nominating is crucial in management. If you can get a person to self-select, that’s a lot better than a supervisor having to come and say “You know, Lynn, you’re just not good.”
So, very early on, I got out of the key punch business because I was no good, and I became the delivery guy. I started to learn how to deal with people. And that’s why management and sales and raising money and all that stuff became something I migrated to. I’m thankful for that, because if I had just been paid the same, I might have stuck in there and been kind of the C performer for a long time. Instead, I got out of it. My brothers were A performers. And they went more of a technical route in their lives, and I ended up taking more of a managerial and finance route.
Bryant: What are some other principles that were set early on that have continued to this day?
Blodgett: Getting everybody’s interests aligned on the same side of the table, including the client’s, is key. Because that’s not normally how it is. You have the client with their objectives. You have the employee with their objectives. And then you’re over here trying to make nice with everybody.
Bryant: Other key principles?
Blodgett: I think that the more direct the accountability, the greater the performance. I remember how it was when I was starting out. We had an investor, and we were just teeny. We were doing about $30,000 a month or so in business. ACS is almost $8 billion in annual revenue, so it’s a little more complex. But you know what? The principle is the same. When I was responsible for that little business, I had my bar charts, and I’d color them in every day. That’s how I kept track, and I knew that if I didn’t make my number, it was my responsibility. Well, what we’ve done is we’ve said: “O.K, how can we create that entrepreneurial drive deep into a large organization? How do you do that?” * * *
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.