Separate the thinkers from the doers

Doers are the superheroes of the company

One of the characteristics of the Founder’s Mentality℠ is the leadership team’s obsession with the front line. Strategy is execution. In recent discussions with company founders in Istanbul and São Paulo, I tried to understand in more detail how they keep their organizations’ focus on execution. One thing is very clear: These leaders are ruthless about distinguishing between the “thinkers” and “doers” in their organizations, and they are absolutely clear about the fact that the doers are the heroes of their organizations.

In large multinational businesses, this notion of doers vs. thinkers goes against the grain. It sounds divisive. It counters everything we try to teach about professional development. Isn’t it the goal of professional development to give every employee an opportunity to advance through the organization, from taking orders (doing) to giving orders (thinking)? How insulting, the argument goes, to label someone a “doer.” It smacks of elitism and seems terribly disempowering. I get it—that was my first reaction.

But this reaction reveals an implicit prejudice. A CEO of a petrochemicals business in São Paulo explained: “The whole reason we are reluctant to label people doers or thinkers is because we immediately assume we are insulting the doers. In most companies there is an implicit hierarchy; the thinkers stand above the doers. But in my company, the doers are the heroes of the business. They sell the product and bring in the money that provides the salaries for the thinkers, who don’t sell a thing. There is a horrible paternalism in modern business theory: We’ve decided thinking is a superior activity and we shouldn’t devote much attention to those who are just asked to execute. This is shameful.”

I heard a similar protest some 10,000 kilometers to the northeast, from a CEO of a leading consumer goods company in Istanbul. “My sales guys are the heroes of my business,” he said. “And I want them to sell all day, outhustling the competition, getting our products onto the right shelves at the right width and height. I’ve told them over and over that they are not the brains of the company, but they are the arms, legs, ears and eyes.

He went on to give an example. “All the sales guys have iPhones. When they see new competitive activity or something interesting in-store that worries them or presents an opportunity, they take a photo, write a few lines about the issue and send them off to the heads of sales and trade marketing. Then they go back to selling and executing on key sales initiatives.” Headquarters gets about 150 pictures a week, he said. “About 10% of them are significant enough to force us into major new trade activities. Our trade marketing folks decide what those are and give new initiatives to our sales team. Every month, we give an award for the best new sales initiative. Who gets the prize? The guy who sent in the photo that triggered the new initiative. And it’s a good one!”

“That’s the difference,” he continued. “The sales guys execute, and they are the heroes—not the overhead back at corporate, who sorts out the next initiative.”

This notion creates all sorts of problems for big bureaucratic companies. First, how do they explain to the thinkers that they are there to support the front line? But in fact, that’s exactly what needs to happen to refocus the company to the front line. Second, it creates succession problems. Doers are supposed to rise and become thinkers. But the primary goal of recruiting doers is to bring in outstanding doers, not fill the career pipeline of future thinkers. As the CEO in Istanbul said, “If you want to focus people on execution, recruit folks who love executing. Don’t recruit people who think this execution is something they have to suffer through until they get promoted.”

This principle turns some things upside down, but it creates huge opportunities as well. Let me give you one example: I was talking to the head of Africa at a large multinational corporation, and his biggest issue was recruiting enough talent to keep up with revenue growth. As we talked through the distinction between doers and thinkers (and the need to make doers the heroes of the business), I could see his eyes light up.

“That is part of the problem we have,” he reflected. “We don’t value doers. We think we need to recruit thinkers and give them a spell as doers. But we’re falling right into the trap, aren’t we? If we truly valued the doers in our company, we’d realize that we have a huge opportunity in Africa. We can give so many more people opportunities. Ultimately, we want people who are ready to hustle, ready to sell, ready to improve their lives and the lives of their families by going out each day to put in an honest day’s work.”

Maybe that is why three separate founders have told me that one of the questions they ask when interviewing salespeople is, “Do you have to support your parents?” Why ask that question? One founder told me this: “A ‘yes’ answer tells me three things. First, these are honest people with the right values. They are looking after their parents. Second, it tells me they are prepared to work hard; they have extended obligations beyond their own concerns for pocket money. And third, it tells me they are determined to improve their lot in life. They probably came from poor families, and they are now working for a leading company. They will do whatever it takes to succeed.” Given all that, the founder concluded, “Why wouldn’t this person be the hero of my business?”

Still, not everyone agrees with this ‘doers’ versus ‘thinkers’ idea. One CEO I spoke with in New York at first really objected to the idea, but then modified his critique with the following caveat:  “I think the separation of doers versus thinkers is a timing issue. When we’re planning, I want the whole organization to take part and be creative. I want the sales reps in the room and I want them to offer some real challenges. I want their brains, not just their arms and legs. But when we then decide to execute, I want everyone focused on ruthless execution.”

It’s a good point. Note, however, that he’s still separating thinkers and doers. Having sales reps challenge the thinkers during a planning session doesn’t blur the line, it reinforces it. In fact, it is not all that different from the Istanbul sales reps deciding that something is worrying enough (or enough of an opportunity) to photograph and send it to headquarters.

Doers can think, after all. It’s just not the most valuable way for them to spend their time.

This entry was posted in Frontline focus by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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