Just when we think we’ve harvested every pearl from the oyster of management wisdom that is Clayton Christensen, we discover one more.
In an interview with strategy + business, a magazine by global management-consulting firm Booz & Company, Christensen posits that senior executives and leaders of companies fit two distinct archetypes: those who play and those who don’t.
“The first is like Tom West, the leader of the computer-building team at Data General in The Soul of a New Machine,” Christensen explains. “West says in the book that success is like pinball. If you win with one project, you get to play again. I think a lot of senior executives are just that kind of person: They like to play. They don’t care that much about where they end up in a hierarchy.
“The second group is made up of people who have a need to be in charge and who care a lot about their hierarchical position.
“If I were recruiting a leader, I’d look for people in the first group — people who like to play.”
Of course, it’s one thing to understand this idea in the abstract and another to put it into action. How do you find and vet leaders who like to play? Here are two tips from other experts.
1. “Make sure that something makes their eyes light up.”
That’s the advice Nolan Bushnell (@NolanBushnell), founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, gives in an interview on Skip Prichard’s leadership blog. (Bushnell, who hired Steve Jobs in 1972, recently wrote the book Finding the Next Steve Jobs.)
“You say that the secret sauce of creatives like Steve Jobs was enthusiasm,” Prichard notes. “How do you detect enthusiasm when you’re interviewing a candidate?”
Bushnell replies, “Make sure they are passionate about something! Sometimes you can get to that through asking about the books they’ve read. Sometimes you can get to it by asking them about their hobbies. What do they do when they’re not working? What are they really passionate about? . . . If they are not passionate about anything? Next.”
2. Reconsider how your organization treats failures.
One thing that inhibits a sense of play in anyone — prospective leaders or current ones — is the feeling that playing and failing will lead to negative career consequences. On the HBR Blog Network, consultant Doug Sundheim (@DougSundheim) suggests three ways to combat this: Define a “smart” failure. Reward smart failures in addition to successes. And make your approach to risk-taking transparent. (For more details on all three of these, click through to Sundheim’s entire post.)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine portrayed Data General’s Tom West as a leader with a sense of play. For an update on what happened to West and the other leaders, we recommend Wired magazine’s December 2000 article “Oh, Engineers!” Yes, it’s 13 years old — but that’s still two decades after the book came out. Even if you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine, you can appreciate the piece as a management time capsule.