Double exposure of a businessman and stairs. Success of business concept. Image: iStock

Given my long experience in technology companies, I am frequently asked why so many great companies decay. Recently, I was asked this question as I delivered a lecture on industrial management to senior college engineering students hoping to become entrepreneurs or senior managers. So many books and articles have been written on the subject of successful management that I was at a loss on how to answer without boring the class. So I shared with them the advice I got early in my career at RCA, then one of the world’s leading technology innovators.

I joined the Solid State Division of RCA in 1959, very early in the development of transistors. Germanium was the material used to produce them. Silicon was known to offer superior properties but the technology was much more difficult and hence producing low-cost commercial devices was challenging. Given the needs of the RCA Computer Division for low-cost switching transistors, I was assigned to develop suitable devices for computer systems.

I produced some prototypes in my lab and showed them to one of the marketing managers, Roy Pollack. The next day, he came to see me and asked me why I selected a 60-volt limit for one of the key parameters. I answered that this was the specification I received from the Computer Department engineers. He asked if I could produce a device with a 120-volt limit. If so, he said, this product would have much broader market applications beyond computers into industrial systems.

Over the following weeks, I succeeded in increasing the device’s operating voltage to 120 volts, and we started commercial production. Pollack launched a sales campaign for this transistor, dubbing it the “universal transistor” because of the many industrial uses that it would fill. This was the hugely successful 2N2102 type produced in the billions – and 59 years later it is still commercially available.

Roy Pollack and I became good friends and he gave me some advice that I have never forgotten. “There are a few magical words in the English language,” he said, “that will open many opportunities. The first is ‘Why?’ Never take things for granted. Sometimes by asking questions you open thinking that otherwise would never have arisen. The second phrase is ‘What do you think?’ People with key operating roles want to be engaged and want to feel that they participate in the decision-making process. The third little phrase is ‘thank you.’ It is remarkable how few managers know that being appreciated is a key driver of creative people.”

RCA was eventually acquired by GE, but before then Pollack went on to become the RCA corporate head of all commercial and military product divisions (with several billions of dollars in annual revenues) and never forgot to follow the advice he gave me. He was very successful, respected, and created in all the business units he became responsible for a cadre of excellent managers wherever he went.

He took the “thank you” advice seriously. For example, he made a point of reading technical reports carefully and returning them to their authors with comments and questions. In some cases, he would invite the authors to come by his office for an explanation if the question was complex. The staff got the message that they had a boss who cared, understood and appreciated their work. This was a great morale builder.

As I watched Pollack’s success, I found that he would make decisions always conscious of the need to ensure that he had whatever facts were available to assist in that process. This is where the “What do you think?” came in. His staff did not feel that important decisions were arbitrary or unexpected. And he welcomed the back-and-forth questioning of operating factors and product issues. He hated yes men and welcomed constructive criticism. As a result, RCA was able to meet the intense electronic-product competition because Pollack would not accept lame excuses for inferior products.

In short, Roy Pollack led an organization open to change. He was a boss who encouraged criticism and the reporting of unpleasant market information that allowed timely actions to be implemented. Companies that lack the ability to do so eventually fail.

In closing my lecture, I mentioned what happens when no “why” is tolerated. I once asked a friend who spent some years at General Motors in the 1980s why the company could not match product quality against the new foreign competition with superior products. “Asking why the company made inferior cars was a good way to get fired,” he answered.

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