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A holiday card to the industry, 2015

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People are supposed to never be irreplaceable. But what utter nonsense that is. The only people worth hiring are irreplaceable. Why would you hire anyone else?

Steve Jobs was irreplaceable. What was Apple’s board of directors supposed to do — put someone else in as CEO who was interchangeable with a dozen other Apple CEO wannabes?

More than any other executive in modern times, with the possible exceptions of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Jobs decided what the marketplace needed and provided it. If the marketplace didn’t know it needed it, more often than not it found out.

Tim Cook is, so far as I know, a fine CEO. From my limited knowledge, though, he suffers from not being irreplaceable.

It’s about the people.

There was, for example, the guy I worked with who was smart, talented, and had good business judgment besides.

He was also a clown. His colleagues enjoyed his jokes but ignored his opinions. Management thought of him as an irritant, worth keeping around, but not worth listening to, let alone promoting to a position of responsibility and opportunity.

One day I asked him when he was going to give himself a chance to succeed. “I’ve been asking myself the same thing,” he answered. I offered my help, which mostly consisted of putting him in charge of things he was better at than anyone else. His transformation was remarkable to his colleagues. Not to me.

There was the supervisor I worked with who never spoke to his team in a group setting. He simply froze when called on to speak in public.

We worked on this, on the grounds that as a leader he had to be able to do it.

Some months later he let me know that the night before his son had gone through a childhood milestone, during which he made a short speech to his entire extended family to mark the occasion. It wasn’t just a milestone for his son.

When I rank my best and most important accomplishments, nothing else comes close to these.

It’s about the people.

This column marks the end of twenty years of Keep the Joint Running and its predecessor, InfoWorld’s “IS Survival Guide.” When I started writing I set myself three goals for each column.

The first: Every column had to have something new to say. It didn’t have to be a brand new insight … nobody has 52 insights nobody else has ever thought of in a single year … but it had to at least provide a new or different perspective.

So originality came first. Second came entertainment, or at least the avoidance of dullness. I figured nobody would get to my new insights if they dozed off before they got there.

And third was usefulness: If those who read what I had to say found themselves mystified as to what they were supposed to do with my entertaining and novel insights, what would be the point?

Sure, I’m small enough to be competitive about what you read here. While it’s more than a little annoying to know that no idea is truly legitimate until Gartner or McKinsey makes it their own, there is a certain joy that comes with getting there first, even if the only people who know about it are you and me.

But more than anything else, Keep the Joint Running has turned out to be about people.

Over the past two decades I’ve made hundreds of friends I’ve never met. Some of you write to offer your own insights. Many are complementary to my own. Others, even better, are contrary to my own. These are as precious to me in my own way as the One Ring was to Smeagol, because really, how dull would the world be if everyone agreed with me, all the time?

And, I’ve been delighted to learn, many of you have been able to put some of the ideas you find here to practical use. Of all the correspondence I receive, “You helped me out,” are the emails I value most.

(Well, I have to be honest. I also value the ones that say, “We’d like you to help us out,” quite a lot, too. A consultant has to pay the bills, after all.)

Everyone who reads KJR has a leadership role to play, wherever you find yourself. You lead, you’ll recall, whenever someone else follows you.

Title and authority have nothing to do with it. It’s about deciding that right here, right now, you know what should get done and it’s up to you to persuade those who can do it.

That’s leadership at its finest. When you lead … whenever you lead … do me a favor. Never lose sight of the central fact of leadership:

It’s always about the people.

* * *

Twenty years is a very long time to come up with a new and interesting insight, once a week, every week. On the other hand, If I stopped writing Keep the Joint Running I’d lose a lot of my motivation to look for them … and I’d lose touch with so many friends I’ve never met, along with those I’ve yet to correspond with.

Next year will be a bit different: When nothing new and interesting has occurred to me, I’m going share something from the KJR archives instead. Not that many of you have been with me for the past twenty years, so I figure some of my golden oldies will be new to enough of you that my re-runs will be just as useful as when they were first published.

I’ll be taking my annual week off, so there won’t be a new KJR next Monday. Between now and the week after that I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season, whatever holidays you choose to celebrate, be they Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, the New Year, or, as one of my subscribers suggested more than a decade ago, Sir Isaac Newton’s birthday and the perihelion.

See you in 2016.

Comments (24)

  • Yes, it is about people—and your many years of stories and insights have illuminated the path.

    We are thankful for your dedication and leadership.

    Just one final observation: Reading repeats of your articles is more appealing than 95 percent of the dumbed-down contrivances that fill the Internet

  • I’m glad you decided to reconsider a permanent retirement from your column. I’ve certainly appreciated your columns starting from the times when Infoworld was a glossy magazine.

    Take the time you need to recharge the batteries. Everyone needs a rest from Crackerbox Palace, now and then. Even at 68, it’s good to see that someone still cares, listens, and tries to solve big problems. In a different world, you could know all the good your thinking has done; but in this world, just know that it has.

  • To all my friends I’ve never met (I like that line, Bob); I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

  • I can’t say for sure that I’ve been reading you for 20 years, but if not, it’s been close. Through company changes and job changes, and now into retirement, you were a constant. And I would say you achieved your goals for each column remarkably consistently. I especially valued the columns that focused on people issues, and I have several in my paper files, and electronic archives. I look forward to seeing a familiar favorite or two, as well as your new insights.

  • I congratulate you on (in my opinion) accomplishing your goals of Originality, Entertainment and Usefulness. Your views have more often than not been “spot on” with mine – I’ve found that refreshing. Your writing encouraged me to blog a few years ago, I found that I couldn’t keep up with it. KJR has been the ONLY regular column that I read almost immediately, and the ONLY column that I’ve ever recommended to others.

  • You have provided many insights over the years…our CFO and CEO have received value from the columns I’ve passed on to them. I’m very happy you’re not completely retiring. My favorite quote:

    “…unlike physical gravity, which results from the curvature of space and time that occurs in the presence of mass, organizational gravity results from the curvature of preference that occurs in the presence of a mass of like-minded employees.”

    It helped the CEO take a new approach to change management…

  • Very sad to see you stop writing your weekly columns Bob. As a reader for those 20 years, I can’t thank you enough for the insight and entertainment about IT, leadership, and most importantly people. Look forward to the classics (and there are many).

  • Bob,
    I’ve been reading your columns since your Info World days. I have always found them interesting and entertaining. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading some of those golden oldies.

    All the best in 2016 . . . and, beyond . . . Jim

  • It is hard to realize that I have been reading your columns for all of those 20 years! Three different employers in that time space. Many good ideas from you, some of which I could put into practice and some which my superiors ignored, to their peril- hence the change of jobs. Even when I don’t agree, I always learn something. Keep up the good work, even though I am into retirement now, I have not signed out of the human race. I am now using my skills, knowledge and your knowledge to help non profits who can’t afford to pay for this knowledge but really want it and appreciate it beyond words. Keep up the great work!!

  • Bob,

    Congrats on 20 years! If you are going to run columns from the archive, I would like to suggest a column, I believe you titled, “Taste Great…Less filling” It dealt with mission statements.

    Just my two cents.


    Tim Gill

  • Dear Mr. Lewis,

    Thank you very much for such fine, insightful, and helpful columns.

    Over the years I have received and continue to receive many newsletters, and other such mailings, many of which strive to provide valuable information.

    Only one has held the place of honor – never deleted until read – yours. I saved many afterwards for later reference – good advice never becomes obsolete.

    I will miss the advice of an irreplaceable columnist.

    Thanks again, and best wishes for your future,
    Thomas A. Vojir

    • No need to miss it just yet. Even the reruns might remind you of something!

      • It was the wording: “This column marks the end of twenty years of Keep the Joint Running…” Seeing “end” made me (and some other readers) think you were stopping the column*. Though fortunately it turned out you simply meant the completion of the year and the 19 before it 🙂

        (I just sent you MgmtSpeak suggestions and I was going to feel like an idiot if it turned out you retired from writing it and I just hadn’t bothered to read that yet in the email!)

        *50 yrs from now people are going to wonder why a recurring digital article is sometimes called a “column”, especially considering even your space in the printed InfoWorld was not typically a column 🙂

        –Reader since ’98

  • It absultely is about the people!
    We always enjoy your blog you should enjoy your vacation and while you’re at it…Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Magical Kwanza, Happy New Year and all that jazz!

  • Thank you for so many years of good articles! I wish you and your family a wonderful Holiday season!

  • “Not that many of you have been with me for the past twenty years…”

    I am pretty sure that I have been there since day one.

  • Bob

    Thanks for the insight and wit you have provided over the years. I have been reading your column for the past 20 years. Starting back in the days when you and I had more hair on top of our heads. I would ‘clip’ out your column from the glossy Infoworld and save them in a folder (‘recycling’ the rest of the magazine). I think I still have some of those clippings around somewhere. Over the years, I have always looked forward to your column. I have purchased, read and recommended your writings/books to my friends.
    Thanks again for your generous contribution.

  • “People are supposed to never be irreplaceable.”

    That’s shorthand for 1) employees not “people” – no one thinks a unique individual is replaceable. And 2) it’s the employees’ quantifiable skills and knowledge and that’s supposed to be “redundant” or “replaceable”. Obviously that’s never 100% true either, but you can make an effort with cross-training and documentation.

    The examples you provide don’t really fit your thesis either. Jobs, Gate, Bezos all founded their companies. They weren’t hired by them. It may certainly prove true that Apple can’t replace Jobs. However, I’m sure there’s been turnover of thousands of (hired) employees; and that turnover doesn’t seem to have impacted Apple (not too much, anyway). So evidently the employees in those positions were more-or-less “replaceable”.

    Why would you hire anyone else? You never know for certain what you are getting when you hire. Often there are multiple qualified candidates available. You take your best guess. Sometimes you find out that a replacement you are forced to hire is better than the original. Or adds something new. A different direction.

    The baristas at my coffee shop come and go. I came and went on various production lines I worked on. Star athletes come and go; even actors are replaced to portray the same character, on occasion.

    Individuals with their unique characteristics come and go everywhere. Quality organizations that thrive take advantage of each individual’s strengths and contributing qualities, even if they’re not exactly the same as their predecessor’s.

    • Well, Jobs was hired by Apple for his second stint there, and beyond this there’s nothing about being a founder that might make someone intrinsically more or less irreplaceable than anyone else.

      I’d say the same thing about CEOs in general. The only real difference I see is that executive-level managers are in a position to define their jobs in ways that make them harder to replace, and to define everyone else’s job to make it easier.

  • Hello Bob,
    I have been reading your column since the InfoWorld days and the columns were always humorous and insightful. But, I have to tell you that I have to whole heartedly disagree with this premise.
    While I understand the idea that it’s about the people, the context for that statement could not be more unsupportive.
    In short, in the vast majority of work places, the people doing the work could not be more inconsequential to the endgame. I have seen more talented people let go in the past five years then in the previous fifty.
    So, are you right that it’s about the people? Yes. Is that what is happening in reality? No.
    Thanks for all your insight over the years and stay well and productive in 2016.

    • You’re right about how most companies behave. I’ve seen a lot of this, and I think it’s safe to say that in every case this approach to management has taken its toll in lost revenue, higher operating expenses, and greatly increased business risk.

  • Thanks to you, Bob and everyone in the community

  • Interesting read. If it’s truly about the people – then I think this contradicts your not irreplaceable point. Part of my role as a leader is to hire the right people and develop them, like the 2 examples you gave. My goal is to develop them to replace me. A second goal as a leader should be to create a sustainable company – to do that you have to be replaceable because as a leader you are not going to be around forever – that’s the only certainty in life (I’m in the life insurance business :))

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