Tempering Ambitions

FRAMINGHAM (01/28/2000) - I have always believed in the importance of ambition.

It is, after all, the root of all achievement. At the same time, I have also been aware - more so today - that ambition can have its dark side. It can easily lead to overreaching by an individual or a company. Reality is ignored and hubris takes over, while the need for competence is often overlooked and no longer rewarded.

As technology stocks soar to giddy heights, we're tempted to allow greed to guide our investments - or, in the case of a company's senior executives, the development of its capabilities. Remember that ambition can lead to loss, maybe disaster, if left unshackled.

Consider Apple Computer. It's doing well now, but there was a time when it almost sank. Apple's ability to deliver fell behind its ambition to educate the world.

But a carefully considered, tempered overreach is good, maybe even necessary, for survival. A senior executive, Internet leader or investor must bring an analytical intelligence to bear on the realities a company faces.

While conducting research for a book I just completed about ambition, I spoke with Gary Wendt, the former head of GE Capital. Under his leadership, GE Capital grew dramatically and soundly. What began as a company that financed the purchase of General Electric products expanded into a financial services powerhouse. Today, GE Capital contributes significantly to the parent company's business and profits. The policies Wendt followed exemplify ambition restrained by reality and common sense. He offers a textbook lesson in "good" ambition.

Wendt never drifted into Peter Pan's Never-Never Land while growing the business. It could have been easy to let his ambition fly out of control.

Instead, he focused on keeping control and following certain rules he set, which are worth detailing.

-- Time. Not devoting enough time to the organization's needs can lead to impatience, cutting corners and potentially critical misjudgments. The basic question an executive must ask is, what can be accomplished in the available time?

-- Talent. When you're running a global business, talent is of primary importance. You need people who can grasp and adapt quickly to the realities of unknown or foreign situations. Truly gifted managers are scarce, but it's worth a leader's time to find them.

-- Momentum. When a manager no longer runs his company with ambition - and the vision or passion it entails - a business can slow down, losing its sense of urgency and thus its momentum. Wendt sees momentum as necessary to maintain the energy and conviction an executive needs to grow his business.

-- Risk. The bigger a company becomes, the more difficult it is to judge risk.

So a leader must watch for the potential threat of bigger losses. That doesn't mean that he should lose the appetite for risk, because you can't grow a business without it. But risk should be carefully considered before it's undertaken.

These precepts are wise words and point to the traditional path toward financial success. They don't allow greed to become part of the equation and, they apply as much to the investor about to buy stock in a technology start-up as they do to the executives who will lead it.

You certainly can't run a business without a focus on financial performance, but when money and profits become a company's only objectives, senior executives run another kind of risk: People involved in such an enterprise will eventually lose their passion for the business.

Without something aside from stock price to focus on - product quality, for instance - an enterprise can become an empty shell. Unfettered, greed-motivated ambition can push aside good ambition and may be one of the greatest risks that threaten technology companies today.

While technology is a great way to realize a company's financial goals, it's ambition that must always be kept in balance.

Champy (JimChampy@ps.net) is chairman of Perot Systems Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. His new book, The Arc of Ambition, was released this month by Perseus Books. His newspaper columns are syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

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