In my book Building the Bridge As You Walk on It, I shared an important story about a man named Tom Glocer. Tom was a young lawyer at Reuters. At the time, Reuters was making profits in every country where it operated except Brazil. Tom was offered a line management job leading the Brazil operation.
In an attempt to reduce Tom’s anxiety, the CEO told Tom that Brazil had been a problem for a long time and that it was unlikely he could actually turn it around. Tom saw this as a challenge. He prepared for his new assignment by gathering information, analyzing trends, and planning ways to improve the Brazil operation.
When he arrived in Brazil, it took only a half-day to discover that the operation was totally corrupt: incompetence, cronyism, and outright theft were rampant. Managers from other countries were counting the days until they could leave. The operation was hopeless.
By noon of his first day, Tom made a fundamental decision. He threw out all his analysis and plans. Instead, he decided to fire all but three people and rebuild the entire organization, even though he had no experience leading such a change. He said, “I was not a surgeon, but the patient was going to die.” Like a doctor in a crisis, he began to move forward, choosing to make complicated decisions despite having insufficient information. He was truly building the bridge as he walked on it. He left behind the systematic mind of the lawyer and walked naked into the land of uncertainty. His efforts eventually succeeded, and Brazil became a profitable operation.
Here is how Tom looks back on that experience: “There was so much urgency. I had no choice. I had to act. If something blew up, it did not matter. Things were so bad there was only one way to go. So I did what I had to do. It was terrifying, but we learned how to do what needed to be done. It was the best work I have ever done.”
A few years later, Tom would once again face what seemed to be an impossible challenge. By then, Reuters had shared the fate of many information companies in the post-dot-com era, and its shares had lost 90 percent of their value. The new CEO, the man responsible for the life or death of the company, was Tom Glocer. Once again, Tom was walking naked in the land of uncertainty. In the middle of the journey he wrote:
I am struck by stories of managers who, whatever their level, move themselves beyond fear or self-preservation to act with true decisive freedom. Once so liberated their power knows no limits and with it, their value to their companies soars.
Despite the heroism of so many of the personal and corporate stories of growth related in cases of deep change, the striking feature for me is that they are told in retrospect. I do not say this to demean the power or pathos of the personal journeys recounted, but rather to highlight my own discomfort at telling my story before I know the ending.
Reuters is my company. It is a 152-year-old institution I deeply love and one which the world would be poorer without. I have launched it into a transformation which employees, investors, and customers find threatening. I am calmly confident, however, that there is no other path.
We at Reuters have been through a wretched time in the eyes of market analysts and the UK media. Out of their pessimism, however, has ironically grown a great freedom for me which I have known only once before in my career. I can do no wrong – and hence I can do great good – because I am free of the incrementalism born of mediocre success.
I do not know how this story will end, but I could not care more, work harder, or fear less.
We now know that the story turned out very well. The transformation was successful. Reuters and Thomson eventually merged and Tom was appointed CEO. But even if the episode had been unsuccessful—and some efforts at deep change are—the story is inherently instructive.
There are two conclusions to draw from Tom’s experience. One is common and disempowering. The other is uncommon and empowering. Here is the first: “In both cases he became free because he had a crisis. I do not have a crisis; I cannot be free.” The second conclusion I will leave for you to draw.
What did the two experiences have in common?
What is “true, decisive freedom?”
What is the empowering conclusion to draw from this passage?