Herodotus -- Management 101
By Jason C. Mavrovitis
Many years ago, as a young contract and project manager in a defense electronics company, I had the good fortune to work as assistant to a senior corporate trouble shooter who, for a time, became my mentor and management role model.
The senior manager was a tall, white-haired gentleman named Maxwell Scott. Mr. Scott -- it was several years before I called him Max -- was slender, wore tweeds, sported an elegant, closely-trimmed white moustache, and had the appearance of a British country gentleman. Soft spoken, he articulated every word slowly and clearly, with a vocabulary and command of language that reflected his New England upbringing, preparatory school training, and Ivy League education. As he spoke, he often tapped the tips of the fingers of his hands together as if generating ideas from the motion. Mr. Scott held a master's degree in electrical engineering, but he was not a stereotypical engineer with a slide rule hanging from his waist (yes, they did exist, and we did use them forty years ago).
I learned that at his core, Max Scott was a humanist, who was well versed in the literature and art of classical Greece. And, he found that the classics had relevance in modern life.
I had known of Mr. Scott by reputation for more than two years before the morning that my Division's Vice President and General Manager summoned me to his office. He told me that I was being assigned as an assistant to Mr. Scott, who was about to take over a major project that was in trouble. The Division faced a prospective loss in excess of $40 million (in 1960s dollars) if the project was not turned around.
I was excited as I hurried to the office Mr. Scott occupied in the executive suite, ready to help him save the day. Mr. Scott's gentile secretary -- middle-aged, demure, conservatively dressed, with gray hair that formed a bun on the top of her head -- ushered me through his door and announced me. He looked up over his reading glasses, stood, smiled, shook my hand, and motioned for me to be seated.
"Well, Jason," he said, "your Vice President told me that you were the man to help me. What do you think we should do?"
I thought for a moment, and admitted, "I don't know."
Mr. Scott smiled. "Good, neither do I. So let's figure it out."
Thus began my management training under Max Scott.
His first step was to have me arrange three days of meetings for him with the project's managers and supervisors from marketing, engineering, manufacturing, finance, and
support departments. The direction he immediately gave to all was: "Stop all work. Everyone is on a five day paid leave. Managers will prepare briefings for me to start tomorrow morning. Turn all contract files over to Jason by the end of the day. "
My assignment was to review all the contract files, financial statements, correspondence, and reports, attend all his meetings, take notes, and have a summary of issues ready for
him in five days.
Mr. Scott placed a telephone call to a high ranking officer at the Pentagon who was our customer in Washington, D. C., and proceeded to tell him the unvarnished truth -- the
project was in trouble, it was under review, and all schedules were void. He promised to report in one week to tell him of our status and our plan for recovery.
Before I left work that evening, Mr. Scott stuck his head into my cubicle and asked, "Have you read The Histories by Herodotus? You are Greek, aren't you?"
I answered that I had read some of Herodotus' Histories in college, and that, yes, I had a Greek heritage. But what, I thought, did this have to do with my assignment.
"Read the first half of Book VII by tomorrow morning. Bring it to work and we'll discuss it at lunch."
On the way home I stopped at a book store, found a copy of The Histories, and before I went to bed, I had read the first half of Book VII.
I attended Mr. Scott's meetings the next morning and listened to two briefings. He did not raise his voice or make pronouncements. His questions were open-ended, probing, and clear-cut: "Tell me about..." "How did you approach...?" "What were the problems with...?" "Did you have the right resources?" "What were the test results?" "What is the quality of the shop drawings?" "How are our vendors and subcontractors performing?"
The offspring of haste in any venture is error, and error in turn tends to lead to serious harm. Benefits come from waiting; even if they aren't apparent at first, one will discover them in time.
He allowed each person as much time as necessary to exhaust every topic, paying careful attention to the ir answers, and not indicating what his opinion or judgment might be. At
noon, we broke for lunch, which consisted of sandwiches, coffee, and cookies in Mr. Scott's office.
"Did you read Herodotus, Jason? What did you learn?"
Taking the book from by briefcase, I opened it, turned to the pages on which I had underlined the words that I thought were meant to instruct me, and showed them to Mr.
"...unless opposing views are heard, it is impossible to pick and choose between various plans and decide which one is best. All one can do is go along with the opinion that has been voiced. However, if opposing views are heard, it is possible to decide. Think of a piece of pure gold: taken all by itself it is impossible to tell that it is pure; only by rubbing it on the touchstone and comparing gold with gold can we tell which one is best."*
"You should not choose to run...risk when you don't really have to. No, listen to me instead. Dissolve this meeting now, think things over by yourself and then later, whenever you like, give us whatever orders you see fit. In my experience, nothing is more advantageous than good planning. I mean, even if a set-back happens, that doesn't alter the fact that the plan was sound; it's just that the plan was defeated by chance. However, if someone who hasn't laid his plans properly is attended by fortune, he may have had a stroke of luck, but that doesn't alter the fact that his plan was unsound."
"The offspring of haste in any venture is error, and error in turn tends to lead to serious harm. Benefits come from waiting; even if they aren't apparent at first, one will discover them in time."
"Exactly!" he said, setting aside his coffee.
I was relieved to have cleared the first hurdle, and listened attentively while Mr. Scott explained how these passages pertained to our work. To summarize, he told me that in the years prior to 480 B. C. E., Xerxes, mindful of Darius' defeat at Marathon, was reluctant to wage war on the Greek city states. Mardonius, his nephew, promoted the venture out of self-interest. Eventually, Xerxes made his decision.
Xerxes brought together the most powerful of his subjects for a counsel. At the outset, he announced his plan to attack Greece and revenge his father's failure at the hands of the Athenians. Mardonius supported the plan with extravagant praise for Xerxes, his military might, and his plan. Mardonius' support was so unwavering, and so flattered Xerxes' ego, that no one but Artabanus, Xerxes' uncle, dared state an alternative judgment.
"The words you underlined earned Artabanus Xerxes' anger -- a terrible failing on Xerxes' part," Mr. Scott emphasized.
Mr. Scott rose quickly from his chair and, as engineers often do, went to the chalk board to make a list of pertinent points, which he explained as he wrote. And then he added the
* Herodotus, Robin Waterfield, and Carolyn Dewald, The Histories, Oxford University Press, 1998. Book VII,  pp 409, 410. 3
title: Herodotus -Management 101.
1. Take time to consider.
2. Keep mind open -- mouth closed.
3. Obtain information without disclosing position.
4. Reward people with praise for telling you what they believe to be fact -- whether correct or not.
5. Consider alternatives. Discuss pros and cons.
6. Make decision -- stay the course -- support all involved.
7. Change plan if new information makes it necessary.
8. Keep confidence of management and customer. Tell the truth, no matter how painful.
Mr. Scott sat down and took a cookie. "See, it's simple!" he said.
It was straightforward all right, but not simple. What followed for me were twelve-hour days filled with attendance at briefings, and hours of sifting through technical, contractual, financial, resource, and schedule documents.
The morning of the sixth day I presented my summary to Mr. Scott, who immediately questioned most every conclusion I had reached. And on the seventh morning, he gathered the entire project team in a room and presented his summary, which, I happily noted, included much of my work, though processed, expanded, clarified, and turned by his years of his experience into a plan to manage the project to a successful conclusion. He asked for comment and criticism during his presentation, and encouraged active dialogue.
Once the team had endorsed his plan, Mr. Scott took it to the Vice President's office, and together they telephoned the customer at the Pentagon. A complete plan and schedule was air couriered to Washington, D. C. that night (there was no FEDEX) -- I was the courier.
For the next nine months I lived and breathed the project. My impatience, which he sometimes called precipitous, was tempered by Mr. Scott's dispassionate, yet deepl committed approach to problem solving. He was not able, in the end, to make the project turn a profit for the company. Too many resources had been badly invested at its inception. But he did pare the losses to an amount the company could manage, deliver a first rate product -- though late, and recover the confidence of a valued customer.
As I went on in my life and career, the lessons I learned from Max Scott were invaluable. He taught me the currency of the wisdom of classical Greece and how to apply it to the problems of the day, and opened a door that provided me with years of study and enjoyment.
Back to Classics
(Posted June 2003)
For more information about the author, see his biographical sketch under the Contributing Authors' section of HCS, or visit the author's website at http://www.goldenfleecepublishing.com. Mr. Mavrovitis has written a number of fine articles for HCS which readers can browse or read at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archivemavrovitis.html.
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