• 08.18.10

Urgency With a Purpose

“I want to make sure people understand that the responsibility for this company to be successful is not just with the C.E.O. It’s them.” That was Ed Whitacre last year revealing to Bill Vlasic of The New York Times his philosophy for the turnaround he’s trying to implement at General Motors.

Ed Whitacre

Whitacre who is retiring in September knows how to get people to pay attention. As retired veteran GM executive Bob Lutz once said to BusinessWeek, Whitacre “is an activist … He cajoles, motivates and uses the occasional veiled threat to induce fear.”


Most successful managers learn early in their careers that if you want to challenge
people you have do more than raise your voice. You do it with personal example.
Whitacre even joined an assembly line one day and learned how to attach a hood
to a vehicle.

Most important you show them what needs to be done and you provide them with the
resources to do it. And according to Bill Vlasic of The New York Times, Whitacre repeatedly tells GM employees, “You are accountable and responsible. The success of this company depends on you and the things you do. Now go out and do it.”

When a company is struggling, urgency is a priority. Here are three ways to teach it
to your team.

Make it real. Rather than bluster, communicate the need for urgency. Be specific about the challenges facing your team and your business. That is, talk about how factors such as the economy, competition, and consumer buying habits are
affecting your business. Ask people to delineate how such factors are affecting
their performance. Specificity is critical.

Issue directives. Sketch what the team must do to meet the challenges for example cut costs or improve efficiency. Let them figure out how to do it. Ask them to develop ways of doing things smarter as well as with a greater sense of focus. Make it clear that speed is of the essence.

Provide resources. Too often urgency is used as an excuse for doing more with less. No doubt cutting expenses may be important, but wise managers know that cutting is not the same as adding value. Therefore, you need to allocate resources for the most impact. Urgency may involve further investments in new technology as well as new training, and even hiring new people. However, it must be made clear that adding on is no excuse for slacking off. The urgency of getting things
done on time and within budget remains a priority.

These steps are not an excuse for managers to ease up the pressure. There are times
when it is wholly appropriate to raise your voice a few decibels to make your
point, especially when employees whom you have instructed, supported, and
reminded do not follow through. Letting the employee know by the tone of your
voice that he has not met expectations makes the urgency of the situation very
real. Most importantly you must back the stern words with discipline to back up
your case.


The ultimate irony of tough talk is that is just that–talk! Unless a manager
provides his employees with the means by which they can improve they will not
be able to produce effectively.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to visit John’s Web site,