Hope Is Not A Strategy

(CBS)  Benjamin Ola Akande is dean of the business school at Webster University in St. Louis. In this open letter to President Barack Obama, he offers his opinions on how to revive the economy and America's spirit.

Dear President Obama,

During the campaign, you offered America hope and promised to restore a civility and practicality to the nation's highest office so that, together, we could rise to the challenges and opportunities that lay at our doorstep. Now it's time to make some wise choices.

In your acceptance speech on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, you were pointed in your statement that, "while we breathe, we hope." As president, your greatest challenge will be effectively leading a Cabinet of highly qualified and highly opinionated individuals who will undoubtedly have differing ideas on how best to resolve the major issues we face. Your leadership will be tested early and often, and while you have assured Americans that there will be setbacks and false starts, your willingness to make tough choices early on will set the tone for a revival of a shell-shocked economy and a battle-fatigued nation. Yet, the fact remains that hope will not reduce housing foreclosures. Hope does not stop a recession. Hope cannot create jobs. Hope will not prevent catastrophic failures of banks. Hope is not a strategy.

I would like to offer 10 priorities to consider:

1. The Deficit: Don't be concerned about increasing the deficit in the short term. There is an urgent need to stimulate the economy now -- not at any price, but almost. Your recovery plan must combine tax cuts and structured spending in areas that foster long-term economic growth, specifically energy, healthcare and education. This is one time when we need to act for today to ensure that tomorrow will be much better.

2. The Auto Industry: I want to urge you to reject extending additional bailout monies to the Big Three. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the best thing that can happen to these automakers. They need help quickly, but not in the form of government largesse. This is a time for "tough love" and not enabling poor performance, corporate arrogance and unwise decisions. They will thank you in the long run.

3. The New New Deal: There is urgency to rebuild America's roads and bridges, but the real opportunity is to anchor your recovery plan on a renewed energy policy that is timely and targeted. The imperative should entail: 1.) A green bailout for U.S. automakers; 2.) Green infrastructure; 3.) Tax credit for companies to produce alternative energy; 4.) A construction program for a new smart electric grid; and 5.) Increased investment in mass transit using green technology. The projects must be shovel-ready to get people back to work immediately.

4. 2009 Homeowner Protection Act: Now is the opportunity to change the bankruptcy laws to protect homeowners from the vagaries of the marketplace. We have expedited Chapter 11 bankruptcy for businesses to keep them from going under when they run into financial turbulence, and we should do no less for homeowners. It does no one any good to force poor and middle-income Americans out of their homes, and we know that vacant houses destroy even the best neighborhoods. An expedited homeowner protection plan would allow for the restructuring of the mortgages of millions of Americans who are under water. Stemming the flood of foreclosures will reinvigorate the confidence of banks and provide a shot in the arm for the credit market, putting the economy back on the right foot.

5. Strengthening Middle Class America: Your administration should push to expand the earned income tax credit as a relief measure for the middle class and give Americans making less than $150,000 a $500 tax credit per person on the first $8,100 in income. This will increase the rate of spending and the rate of savings by the middle class, which will be a source of new capital to spur growth.

6. A Health Plan for All: The greatest fear among most Americans is the possibility of losing their jobs; with the loss of jobs comes the real possibility of loss of health insurance. We need a comprehensive program that provides health insurance to the unemployed and to the uninsured, and it must happen post-haste. For a nation of our wealth to have any of our citizens go without heath care is nothing short of criminal.

7. Rewrite Financial Service Laws: One of the key reasons for the current financial crisis has been weak regulation of the financial services industry. There needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of enforcement policies of the Securities Exchange Commission. Require disclosure and stipulate new accounting requirements.

8. Restructure Bailout: The first $350 billion of the financial market bailout has done very little to jump-start the economy. The next $350 installment must be directed at assisting homeowners and expanding consumer credit.

9. Foster a Bipartisan Approach: Divisive politics got us into this mess - unifying politics can help get us out of it. The country can no longer afford to see things in terms of red and blue or black and white. The enduring solutions will emerge from the gray.

10. Caution to Consumers: President Obama, I urge you to use your presidential pulpit to speak to Americans, to encourage them to be cautious and prudent in their spending. While consumer spending is a key to the economic revival, at times it may be wise to counsel consumers to -- in the words of former St. Louis Fed President Bill Poole -- "Put their foot on the brake way before they get to the stop sign."

What America needs, more than ever, is your ability to give hope through your leadership. May you have the inner strength to move this nation from uncertainty to certainty. I wish you well.

My Best,

Benjamin Ola Akande

BP, What Went Wrong?

6-August-2010Published in: CBS News Authors: Benjamin Ola. Akande and Chuck Feltz

We don't know all the details, but when we listened to Tony Hayward as he was grilled in Congress about BP's safety record, he kept saying he was changing things and that since he took over, there was a new focus on safety - more emphasis, more money spent on it, a new director of safety reporting directly to him. All great business schools teach these kinds of responses, but they are not the best in terms of human behavior-changing techniques.

We believe there were five reasons why BP failed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tony's strategic message was diluted.

He believed safety was paramount, but that message never got to the guys operating the drill bits. Instead, they obviously thought that such things as time-to-production and costs were more important or they would have stopped drilling. Was their bonus plan in sync with the CEO's vision? Hayward's message never got conveyed in the manner it was conceived, yet he certainly felt he had covered it. It appears Hayward was not aware of where his message lost continuity.

Vendors such as Transocean were not true partners that shared the strategic vision.

Rather, it seems like they were adversaries at worst - and, at best - had goals that were poorly aligned with BP's. Did Hayward anticipate the right way to go about making certain his message addressed and was actionable for all key stakeholders? A strong message poorly executed and acted upon is of no value.

BP failed to realize that safety is a competitive advantage and not a cost.

It would seem that safety would be a keystone value or cultural attribute that, at the least, would represent a table stake, if not a direct competitive advantage. How could something so critical to the culture misfire so poorly? Did they really intentionally design their culture and plan to leverage it as an advantage?

First, safety reduces reputation risk; BP’s reputation is likely tarnished permanently with consumers, vendors and employees. Second, better safety reduces real costs in terms of property insurance, health care expense, payroll, regulatory compliance, fines and productivity. Employees who feel safe are better employees.

Obviously, the lack of safety here cost BP $20 billion and threw their years-long growth strategy out the window. BP is an entirely different company now; and worse, they are not calling their own shots.

Hayward thought safety was just about keeping people safe, but deep down, we bet he'd sacrifice a little safety or take some risk for profits. We’re not saying he would lightly see 11 people die, but if safety is viewed as an expense, then a good manager tries to artfully avoid it. If it is part and parcel of your strategic vision, you embrace it and exploit it.

Improperly valuing risk.

We've become so good as managers at mitigating risk that we have begun to put little value on it – much the same way that Wall Street misvalued risk and almost drove the world into depression. When managers are unaccustomed to seeing bad things happen often, they assume that they never will. Planes don't crash very often, but that doesn’t allow airlines to stop giving the safety speech before each flight. The odds of a car crash are small, but most of us still wear our seat belts. Technology has lulled us into a sense of false security about risk. We are so smart that our machines and our models protect us from having to worry about risk – until they fail to do so. They fail us, too, because they are designed by humans. So, you sink 10,000 wells and the worst-case scenario never happens; why should you think it might happen now? Unless your corporate culture is "better safe than sorry," you'll cut a corner if risk is deemed to be low. How many of us have driven to the store without wearing our seat belt? "It's just a few blocks," we say.

Diluting the strategic message.

No organization is more powerful than the one whose people are laser-focused on driving vision to reality. Unfortunately, leaders assume traditional communication channels are effective in disseminating this critical strategic information. However, our research has found that every organization has a "strategic dilution point" where there is degradation in the content and continuity of this message - typically three levels down from the CEO. The result? More than 80 percent of employees attempt to carry out strategy with reduced clarity and focus.

About the authors:

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D. (akandeb@webster.edu, twitter @Benjamin_Akande), Professor of Economics and Dean, George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology, Webster University, St. Louis, Mo.

Chuck Feltz (chuck@chuckfeltz.com, @ChuckFeltz) has been the CEO or president of five companies and is a founding partner of Engage Consulting Group. A 1989 graduate of Webster University, he is the co-author of the new book, Never by Chance: Aligning People and Strategy Through Intentional Leadership (Wiley and Sons, February 2010).