Saturday, April 23, 2011
Story of the chief executive as zookeeper
I have been reading the book Tell to Win by Peter Guber. One of the great stories in it (on page 148) was told to him by Jack Warner, the president of Warner Brothers studio, back when Peter was running the studios at Columbia Pictures. At a dinner he complained to Warner that he was getting frazzled from being swamped. Everybody came in and just dumped their problems on him. Then:
“Warner said, ‘Let me tell you a story. Don’t be confused. You’re only renting that office. You don’t own it. It’s a zoo. You’re the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey.
That monkey is their problem. They’re trying to leave it with you. Your job is to discover where the monkey is. They’ll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you’re the zookeeper. You’ve got to keep the place clean. So make sure when you walk them to the door, they’ve got their monkey by the hand.
Don’t let them leave without it. Don’t let them come back until it’s trained and they have solutions to their problem. Otherwise at the end of the day, you’ll have an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey sh*t all over the floor.’
Then he said, ‘Think of that visually. Make them take all their monkey problems away and come back with a solution.’ ”
That’s a great metaphor for what a chief executive needs, but how can he make it happen? Well, there’s a famous old memo describing the concept of Completed Staff Work that an executive can send to his team. I was given a copy about 25 years ago, but it actually dates to some time during World War II. You can read one version here. Another version is reprinted in the Summer 2001 issue of the Canadian Army Journal, as a guest editorial titled Words From the Past.