No, I’m not talking about a Pat Benatar song from 1980.
Rather as technology executives, have you ever encountered a book, whitepaper, article, or other prophetic business writing that keeps coming back to haunt you positively? Something that you routinely re-read for inspiration, or something that shaped how you conduct yourself as a business or technology leader?
I had such an experience with a relatively unknown article from the September 1979 issue of Computer Magazine titled “Innovation at Texas Instruments” written by TI’s leaders at the time, Mark Shepard, Jr. (Chairman and CEO) and J. Fred Bucy (President and COO). I stumbled upon that article in the late 1980s after my time as a young engineer at TI, and I have re-read that article at least once a year. With each passing year, this article becomes more prophetic. Woven through this article on innovation is the powerful message of leadership’s responsibility to treat their employees properly if they have any desire to drive innovation beyond expectations.
TI’s company-wide People Effectiveness Program is based on involving TIers to the greatest practical extent in the planning and controlling, and not just the doing, of their own work. Each employee must be seen as a source of ideas, not just a pair of hands. – Mark Shepard, Jr. and J. Fred Bucy
The article reminded me of a specific incident at Texas Instruments when the innovation culture treated me well. I was assigned to a special project by my mentor, Dale Boyette who told me that he would not be looking over my shoulder, critiquing everything I did, and essentially doing my work. Mr. Boyette said that I was on my own to figure out how to handle the project, but if I truly needed his help, I could come to him. He said, “trust me when I say that you will know when to ask for my help.” What was remarkable to me was that Mr. Boyette said “trust me” when he was trusting me with this assignment. I was just a young engineer less than a year out of college. I thought why on earth would he have so much trust in me?
I later realized that it was not just him trusting me, it was not just his approach; it was the company’s approach, rooted in the TI culture. My mentor completely bought into that trusting leadership style. The 43-year-old article on “Innovation at Texas Instruments” was not just a publicity piece to boost the company’s stock price. Underpinning the foundation of TI’s “People Effectiveness Program” that drove innovation was trust. The company lived that trusting approach, and I was lucky enough to live it at the very beginning of my career.
Putting the “Treat Me Right” Principle into Practice
Several years later, I founded an eCommerce start-up, and ready or not, I had to take on the role of leader and mentor to a team of young and brilliant software engineers, network administrators, data scientists, and multi-media specialists. When I stumbled on the article for the first time, I realized that the trusting approach at Texas Instruments that drove their innovation was intentional and well documented. I shamelessly adopted TI’s culture of innovation and trust and told everyone that joined that startup the story of how Mr. Boyette trusted me. I told them that I trusted them to take on the responsibilities of their job and turned them all loose. They all thrived and were intellectually driven by being treated as engineers who knew I trusted them. Not only did TI’s approach work at that startup, but it has also worked for me at every company I have been with since.
During the pandemic, I received a call from a VP of IT that had previously worked for me. He knew that my leadership approach is based on the TI philosophy of trust; he had heard all about Mr. Boyette and all the other TI stories. When he had worked for me, he said several times that at no other job had he been so trusted and that it was an odd feeling but one that he appreciated. He had moved onto a new CIO role, and he wanted to tell me that he put TI’s culture of innovation and trust to work at his new company. He marveled at how well his new trust-based leadership style was working for him. He is now discovering firsthand that innovation is abundant only when trust is abundant.
Innovation doesn’t seem to be at the top of the priority list in this post-pandemic era we now live in. The topics receiving the utmost attention and pontification from writers, researchers, consultants, and other soothsayers include the Great Resignation, Hybrid Work, Remote Work, Leadership Compassion, Management Style, and more. In my opinion, the solution to all of these complicated issues, including innovation, has a common starting point: how you treat your employees. A former business colleague of mine (Sean Busking) used to say, “boy, we have a way of overcomplicating a one-car parade.”
As technology executives, we love to solve complicated issues. We love to slay that fire-breathing technology dragon of the day. But what if several complex issues all had a single simple solution? Wouldn’t you slay the easy dragon first to get momentum as you go after the more complex? It’s easy for me to simply say, “treat your employees properly and you will get a head start on slaying your Great Resignation dragon.” In reality, it’s not that easy. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes dedication to treat employees properly day in and day out. Unfortunately for some technology leaders who failed to keep their employees at the top of their priority list, issues like the Great Resignation might now be an even more severe dragon to slay.
An important part of the People Involvement Program is the team concept. At this time, more than two-thirds of all TIers worldwide are participating in some type of team program. In this program, teams made up of natural workgroups set their own improvement goals and measure their own progress toward these goals. Time after time, team members set what they feel are challenging but realistic goals for themselves, and once the program gets rolling, they find they are not only meeting but exceeding their goals. This is something that rarely happens if goals are set for the team, rather than by the team. When we talk about “improving people’s effectiveness,” we mean giving people these kinds of opportunities to tap their own creative resources. – Mark Shepard, Jr. and J. Fred Bucy
As we look back on the past and the pandemic morass we all struggled to get through, let’s not simply say, “finally, we can abandon that miserable past.” There might be something incredibly worthy from the past to remember. For me, it’s that 43-year-old article that kept reminding me for decades that Pat Benatar was right when she belted out “Treat Me Right.” It’s never too late to try something simple. Even if you can’t hit the high notes like she can start singing along with Pat as you lead your employees through the complexity that the future surely holds for us all. For a blast from the past, and for further encouragement to “Treat Me Right,” I have attached my go-to article “Innovation at Texas Instruments” for your enjoyment.
Do you have something similar that has positively haunted you, something that shaped your executive behavior, something that helped you simplify the complexities of your career and helped you slay the technology dragons brought about by the pandemic? If so, take it down from the bookshelf and re-read it before you read something new and shiny from 2022. It might still be worthy of your time, and if it is, then please share it with the rest of us!