3M CEO George Buckley focuses on leadership training

A: It's a little like having double vision. One eye has to focus on today. The other eye has got to focus on tomorrow. Another analogy I often use: My head's in the oven, and my feet are in ice water, but on average I feel OK. Organizations don't fail on averages. It's vital these days for companies to watch costs, and watch cash even more than costs. It's more important to invest to differentiate yourself from the competition. In a 2% recession, you have 98% of the business left. In a 5% recession you have 95% of the business left. You have to focus on what's left, not on what's gone. You're unlikely to do that well if you back off on training and leadership development.

Q: (Former Chrysler CEO) Lee Iacocca says there has been a leadership vacuum throughout the economic crisis, in both government and business. Do you agree?

A: Iacocca has a very good point. Why would you want to be a politician? Their lives are scrutinized. Nobody's perfect, yet they are so berated. Why would you want to be a leader of a public company today? A private company, perhaps yes, but a public company? We're seeing a progressive disillusion, shall we say, of what made America great. The kind of things that made people like me come to this country and President Obama's father come to this country. We punish mistakes and don't always reward successes. That doesn't work in companies, and it doesn't work in countries.

Q: Leaders haven't made bad decisions?

A: Leaders make unpleasant decisions. They often face unpalatable choices. Norm Coleman, our local senator (R-Minn.), asked me if it was right to bail out the automotive companies. I said it's not about good choices and bad choices, but making choices that are bad or worse. I wish we weren't rewarding people for what they have done. But leaders had to choose between the unpalatable and the unthinkable. The unpalatable is supporting the banks. The unthinkable is the collapse of the banking system. Leaders aren't given the choice between dandelions and roses. It might be dandelions and chickweed. They are forced to make choices with too little time and too little information. It requires courage and a strong stomach. I might be forced to make a decision in five seconds, which will then be studied for months by a team of 40 lawyers. The job that leaders have is difficult, and there are increasingly few people capable of doing it.

Q: Many CEOs once worked at one of a handful of companies like GE, IBM and Baxter. When you lose a talented leader, do you feel that others are pirating from 3M's farm system?

A: We try to persuade people to stay, but we always celebrate when somebody leaves. When people are in charge of 10, it becomes 10 times harder to get the next promotion. In the end, if you have a great farm system, you are going to have some spillage.

Q: Why not save money on leadership development and recruit top talent from others?

A: I'd sooner own a fish farm than be reliant on catching a few fish.

Q: What's your secret to success?

A: The absolutely best way for me to be successful is to have people working for me who are better. Having that kind of emotional self-confidence is vital to leaders. The people I work with are my friends. How can you possibly be objective if you work with your friends? You build respect in those people because you admire what they do. Having once built respect, you build trust. However hokey it sounds, it works.

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