Fire Yourself

user Darren Gold

Intel is best known for its microprocessor. With the introduction in the 1990s of the Pentium chip and its famous “Intel Inside” slogan, the company almost single-handedly launched the PC revolution. Its co-founder Gordon Moore coined the famous term “Moore’s law,” which describes the doubling every two years of the number of transistors on a microchip. Its first hire and legendary CEO Andy Grove is famous for his contributions to the field of leadership. His book High Output Management, and to a lesser extent his follow-on Only the Paranoid Survive, remains essential reading for executives in Silicon Valley. Lesser known perhaps is a story that took place before Intel became famous – one that I return to at the end of every year in my own leadership.

In the 1980s, the majority of Intel’s profits came from its memory chips. It was a part of the industry that was growing in size but rapidly declining in profitability. Japanese competitors were engaged in a vicious pricing war, and the memory business was quickly commoditizing. One weekend, Grove and Moore were at the company’s offices struggling to figure out what to do with their worsening situation. Grove turned to Moore and asked him, “What if the board fired us and hired a new CEO? What would the new CEO do?” They decided to exit the building and figuratively walk back in as new leaders of the business. They did, and the answer was obvious. “Get out of the memory business, that’s what a new CEO would do,” Moore declared. And so they did. They shut down manufacturing plants and let go a third of the workforce with no guarantee that the massive bet on the fledgling microprocessor business would pay off.

At key strategic inflection points, a term Grove himself coined, “firing yourself” is essential. It allows you to step outside the constraints of your existing paradigm and ask and answer a question in a manner that is almost impossible within your current identity. Moreover, because we live in a world where strategic inflections are constant, I have begun to adopt the practice of firing myself as a complement to traditional annual planning. I encourage many of my clients to do the same. I have them literally walk outside the building, turn around, and re-enter to ask themselves, “What would a new CEO and senior team do?” It is a process, if done thoughtfully, that never fails to elicit new thinking and, in many cases, new actions that would not have been seen as options otherwise.

In the weeks ahead, I encourage you to implement this ritual. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, a team leader, a leader of your family, or a leader of yourself, everyone can benefit. The answers you discover and the actions you take may surprise you. And worst case, you’ll get a little exercise.

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