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Dr. Cosby's Lesson

People down in the trenches of a company know the business a lot better than executives give them credit for.

June 29, 2005
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Most people don’t think of Bill Cosby as a management expert. But last month, The Cos seemed to strike a nerve and impart a little management wisdom when he told one of his famous stories to some 12,000 HR professionals attending the Society for Human Resource Management conference in San Diego.

    Cosby told the story of two geniuses and two human resources professionals at the gates of heaven, all trying to get in. The gatekeeper said there was a simple way to gain entry: just give God a question that he couldn’t answer. If you could stump him, you got in.

    The geniuses huddled and talked back and forth for a while, but no matter how hard they tried, God always had the answer to their questions.

    The two human resources people, on the other hand, huddled for just a moment, scribbled down a question on paper and handed it to the gatekeeper. He reappeared a few minutes later and said they had done well. God was stumped, so they could enter. The geniuses were puzzled. What, they asked the gatekeeper, could the HR people have possibly been able to ask God that he couldn’t answer?

    It was simple, the gatekeeper said: "They asked God when the company they were working for was going to get their shit together."

    Cosby’s story got a huge laugh, as you would expect, because it exposed an underlying but very basic truth: Businesses everywhere can’t seem to get their act together. The workforce knows it. The HR staff knows it. Probably even the customers know it. Who doesn’t know it, sadly, is usually the CEO or other well-paid top executives who seem oblivious to the problem.

    Jim Collins knows all about this. He has studied businesses for years and written about what separates the great ones from the not-so-great in books like Good to Great and Built to Last. He recently told Fortune magazine that a very typical problem in business is that "the CEO has already made a decision, and his definition of leadership is to get people to participate so that they feel good about the decision he’s already made." That’s a bad way to manage, Collins says, because "you’re ignoring people who might know a lot that would be useful in making the decision."

    "You’re accepting the idea that because you’re in the CEO seat, you somehow know more or you’re really smarter than everyone else," he says. "But what you’re really doing is cutting yourself off from hearing options or ideas that might be better."

    Collins’ research and Cosby’s story make the same basic point: People down in the trenches of a company understand the business a lot better than the folks in the executive suite give them credit for. They also have a lot of good ideas about how to make the business operate better. Problem is, they frequently aren’t asked what they think. Or worse, they are handed down decisions without being given an opportunity to have any meaningful input.

    I heard this a lot from some of the conference attendees in San Diego. They have strong opinions on how to make the business they work for a lot better—if they only had more of an opportunity to voice them sometime before they reach the pearly gates.

Workforce Management, July 2005, p. 6 --Subscribe Now!

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