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A Lesson From the Whiz Kids: Change and Teams— ‘An Inevitable Combination’

Posted By Cynthia B. Hanson, Monday, July 22, 2019

My father, who recently passed away, worked for Ford Motor Company in its heyday. A 1950  graduate of Harvard Business School and a former Marine in World War II and the Korean War, he started working at  Ford in 1953 and eventually worked under Ford President Robert McNamara, who later became the longest-serving secretary of defense in United States history under Presidents  John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

 

Ford Motor Company was losing millions in the post-  WWII era, but turned a corner through innovative production and management. Seeking new ways to succeed in a time of rapid change (sound familiar?), the company engaged in a unique partnership with a group of United States Air Force officers. Ford would provide the young men just out of the military with jobs and, in turn, the former officers would revamp the company. Disparagingly dubbed the “Quiz Kids” by fellow employees for their youthful questioning, they renamed themselves the “Whiz Kids.” As a manager in finance, production programming, sales, marketing, personnel, and technical and transportation operations, my father worked under their guidance to help reorganize Ford’s financial framework, redefine corporate culture, and contribute to automotive innovation.

 

After my father’s memorial service, I pored over the books in his library. You can tell a lot about a person from the books he or she reads. Based on the collective mix, he pursued self-education to the end, especially in the areas of business, history, leadership—and the art of fly fishing. The mix included tomes such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit and Nigel Hamilton’s The Mantle of Command. But what really caught my eye was an unassuming slip of a book: The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High–Performance Organization, by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, Harvard Business School Press, 1993. As I paged through, I found only one sentence in the entire book underlined. In the chapter “Teams and Major Change: An Inevitable Combination,” the final sentence on Page 211 was highlighted: “It is no accident, then, that every single major change effort we know about has depended on teams.”

 

Through landmark business reconstruction and major wars my father had significant life experience leading and participating in successful teams. He must have come away from those experiences with an understanding of how major change is conjoined with well-organized teamwork. At age 93, the concept of digital transformation was a mystery to him, but the strategy necessary for such radical transformation was very familiar: Major change requires visionary leadership, well-orchestrated collaboration, and flexible innovation.

 

History can teach us a lot about successful collaboration. That connection came through at a ASAP BioPharma Conference in a session on “Alliance Management  Learnings from Great Leaders,” led by Harm-Jan Borgeld, head of alliance management at Merck KGaA;  David Thompson, CSAP, chief alliance officer at Eli Lilly and Company; Steven Twait, CSAP, vice president, alliance and integration management at AstraZeneca. The three alliance professionals probed questions about the “Big Three” WWII alliance led by Winston Churchill,  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin—and how history’s lessons learned relate to today’s strategic alliances.

 

When designed and executed well, alliances can resolve conflict, innovate solutions, win wars, and rejuvenate flagging companies. Collaboration can even streamline services in the public sector and define the  workplace cultures of successful 21st century companies like Jazz Pharmaceuticals. For my father’s generation and for ours, it still comes down to inspired leaders and engaged executives who grapple with change by fostering a culture of teamwork and collaboration— and embrace partners along their journey forward. My dad would recognize this approach as “an inevitable combination.” 

Tags:  Alliances  AstraZeneca  Collaboration  David Thompson  Eli Lilly and Company  Harm-Jan Borgeld  Innovation  Jazz Pharmaceuticals  Merck KGaA  Steve Twait 

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