When he's not running Intel, Andrew S. Grove dispenses management advice to the troubled and profitless
As readers of the San Jose Mercury/News and several other newspapers know, Andrew S. Grove writes a regular Dear Abby-style advice column about workplace problems. Grove's correspondents, like Abby's, pose questions ranging from the troubling to the trivial. The owner of a small manufacturing company wants suggestions on how to maintain morale in the wake of a wage freeze. An accountant wonders what to do about a colleague who snaps her gum all day. Grove dispenses his wisdom, a paragraph or two at a time, to all comers.
This is required reading? Consider the source. Andy Grove, as he is known, is president and chief executive officer of Intel Corp., a $1.3-billion company (roughly 20% owned by IBM Corp.) that is arguably the nation's leading semiconductor manufacturer. He's also something of a management philosopher, author of the well-respected High Output Management (Random House, 1983). The newspaper columns, recently collected into a book called One-on-One with Andy Grove: How to Manage Your Boss, Yourself and Your Coworkers (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1987), may seem less than earthshaking. But if you take Grove's books together -- High Output as a text, One-on-One as a sort of applications manual -- you find an approach to managing people that is blunt, demanding, and fresh.
Management, Grove argues, is like manufacturing. What counts is the quantity and quality of goods or services that go out your department's door. Your responsibility may be the "production" of invoices, or new hires, or even clean bathrooms -- and your immediate customers may be other people in your company rather than outsiders. But you're still in charge of a measurable output. You should know what it is, and you should always be figuring out how to increase it.
Management theoreticians since Frederick W. Taylor, of course, have been telling us to boost output. What distinguishes Grove is his down-to-earth thinking about how a manager's everyday activities relate to that bottom line. Most managers spend their days in a round of meetings, phone calls, supervisory sessions, and so on -- tasks, Grove acknowledges, that can seem "trivial, insignificant, and messy," particularly when the organization's output seems "important, significant, and worthwhile." But since those activities are the only tools by which managers can affect output, it pays to take them seriously.
Grove takes them very seriously. To him, for example, meetings are neither trivial nor peripheral; they're nothing less than a prime medium "through which managerial work is performed." But since they can cost thousands of dollars' worth of time, "it is criminal" if the time is wasted. If you're calling a meeting, know exactly what you want to accomplish. If someone else calls it and you don't think it's needed, say so. Send out a written agenda. Begin promptly -- and confront any late arrivals. As a follow-up, send out detailed minutes afterward. Too much trouble? You're not thinking about output. "If the meeting was worth calling in the first place," says Grove, "the work needed to produce the minutes is a small additional investment . . . to ensure that the full benefit is obtained from what was done."
Supervision -- another chore many managers regard as a distraction from their "real" work -- is to Grove the heart of what a manager does. Here too he has a strong prescription. A manager should have direct supervision over six to eight people. The single most important responsibility of the job is to meet regularly with each of them. These meetings -- the "one-on-ones" Grove conducted at Intel -- should take place every few weeks, by phone if necessary, and last at least an hour. What's the purpose? Grove is no Dr. Feelgood; to him there's a direct connection between communication and output. The employee -- who, it's worth noting, is the one responsible for preparing the meeting's agenda -- gets a chance to discuss problems and ideas. The manager gets an opportunity "to learn and to coach." And yes, both should exchange notes afterward. It's "a way to make sure each knows what the other committed himself to do."
Grove illustrates his propositions in High Output Management mainly through his experience at Intel. A dispute over a new plant's location shows how he thinks managers should handle their disagreements. A fumbling performance review, delivered by Grove when he was a new manager, demonstrates how embarrassment interferes with frank criticism. These and many other stories lend the book a strong flavor of the real world. And Grove gains credibility by reporting what he doesn't know as well as what he does. Discussing recruiting, he describes an employee he hired who was "a disaster" and acknowledges, "To this day I haven't a clue about why I didn't spot the candidate's considerable flaws." Such admissions lead you to believe he's speaking candidly throughout the book.
For all the candor, of course, Grove in High Output Management is still president of a huge corporation, a philosopher-CEO with enormous resources at his disposal. One-on-One with Andy Grove transforms him from corporate mogul to avuncular adviser. He addresses questions that bedevil managers of companies large and small: how to cope with a boss who flies off the handle; how to overcome the residue of a bitterly contested union election; how to deal with a company owner's incompetent son. It's an intriguing proposition -- "OK, smart guy, what would you do?" -- and it makes for engaging reading.
What Grove would do becomes somewhat predictable once you divine the essence of his approach to managing people: a directness that verges on bluntness. If you have a problem with someone -- your boss, an employee, the owner's son -- schedule a meeting and talk it out. If you're too shy for face-to-face confrontation, write a letter. Just don't let it go; you'll have to leave (or to fire the offender) if things don't change. Grove applies his philosophy unflinchingly even in knotty situations. He advises the business owner who imposes a wage freeze to spell out the company's financial situation in full detail for his employees. He tells the manager coming off the union election to find out why a significant fraction of his workers felt they needed a union. "Since communication between yourself and your employees must have been quite poor, it will take more to get your answers than just asking a few questions."
Whether Grove lives up to such standards has been a matter of dispute; as columnist Ann Landers discovered when she got divorced, advice givers can tumble off their pedestals when their personal affairs get as botched as their readers'. And Intel's record is by no means unblemished. A few years ago it lost several key people in well-publicized defections -- suggesting, as two consultants put it in a rival management text, "that Intel did not know how to manage and keep the right people." It lost money for six consecutive quarters before returning to profitability this past quarter. Grove himself has been criticized for excessive bluntness, and for refusing to delegate as much as he should. OK, so he's human. But to conclude that he's all hot air would be a mistake. Both his record and Intel's -- in one of the world's most competitive marketplaces -- are generally outstanding. If there were no slips along the way, we'd canonize him on the spot.
Given the boom-bust nature of Intel's market, it's surprising that his book has a static quality to it, as if the executive's job is mainly to keep the organization going. That doesn't jibe with his experience -- Intel, a classic start-up, grew at a blistering pace for many years, but recently has had to cope with the strains of plant closings and massive layoffs. How Grove managed during the extremes of growth and shrinkage -- an environment that is all too common for INC. readers -- would be interesting to learn. But he has little to say about the peculiar challenges a manager faces in a volatile marketplace.
Maybe his next book will take up the subject of fast growth. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with Grove's down-to-earth management counsel, even -- maybe especially -- when it's addressed to the most mundane of problems. Tell that co-worker her gum cracking bothers you! "Stress the effect her gum chewing has on your ability to do your job -- this is what makes it legitimate for you to raise the issue in the first place." What's important about such questions? When people work well together, output goes up. That's the bottom line of Andy Grove's thinking, and it's profitable advice.