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Leadership : Smart Executives To Focus on Key Areas
posted by admin on 20/06/06

"Don't accept that every time something comes up you have to get a whole team to discuss it."

The CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, Jean-Pierre Garnier, wants his 100,000 employees to work smarter and faster. In his year-end address, he used the metaphor of a snake to urge employees to stamp out bureaucracy and make decisions more quickly and independently.

"Say you're in a plant and there's a snake on the floor," he said. "What are you going to do? Call a consultant? Get a meeting together to talk about which color is the snake?"
Instead, he said, employees should do "one thing: You walk over there and you step on the friggin' snake." He also told them to "simplify processes" and "don't accept that every time something comes up you have to get a whole team of people to discuss it."

Encouraging employees to be more accountable for the work they do and to eliminate unnecessary steps and even approval processes that slow productivity certainly makes sense. But empowering employees as Mr. Garnier says he wants to do requires business leaders who are willing to let go of their need to be in charge of everything.

Many top executives have advanced by always raising their hands for more assignments and steadily increasing their authority. Now all that authority can be difficult to relinquish. Last week, Bill Gates announced he would relinquish his executive role at Microsoft to focus on his philanthropy. But other executives who continue to lead their companies need to relinquish some responsibilities, too. That's because the higher executives climb, the more important it is for them to delegate. Trying to put their fingerprint on every initiative or constantly second guessing employees won't make them effective leaders. They need to focus on a few things that will ensure their companies' reputations and health.

The CEO of Bank of America, Kenneth Lewis, says he was lucky to get some wise advice about figuring out what he should and shouldn't spend his time doing when he took the helm five years ago. A longtime friend and business associate advised him that if he wanted to focus on expanding his company -- something he felt compelled to do at a time the banking industry was consolidating -- he shouldn't directly supervise his general counsel.

"I was wisely advised that spending too much time hearing about legal matters could consume me," says Mr. Lewis. So he changed the bank's organizational chart, and Bank of America's general counsel now reports to the bank's global chief risk officer, though he still meets regularly with the CEO.

Mr. Lewis spends most of his time meeting with major customers around the world and targeting growth opportunities. In January, Bank of America acquired giant credit-card issuer MBNA, making it the No. 2 bank with 10% of the nation's deposits. And when another CEO recently confided that he was immersed in legal matters, Mr. Lewis says the conversation just confirmed he had made the right decision. "I couldn't be an optimist if I was doing that."

As companies trim management layers, executives are supervising larger numbers of employees, which only heightens their need to delegate. "The bigger and flatter you get, the more you have to recognize you can't personally do it all yourself," says Jonas Prising, executive vice president of U.S. and Canadian operations at Manpower. His chief focus: expanding the company's newer businesses, including permanent employment and consulting, as well as its original temporary employment business.

Other executives have to change their work focus because of changes in their industries. At Nielsen Media Research, a unit of Dutch media giant VNU, CEO Susan Whiting has turned her attention away from research, even though it's work she loves. Her senior team oversees day-to-day operations so that she has time to focus on strategy and client relationships. As more television is viewed on computer screens, video iPods and other digital devices, clients have pressured her to modernize Nielsen's rating system.

Last week, Nielsen announced that it will include TV viewing on the Internet and other digital devices when compiling ratings. The change stems from dozens of individual and group meetings Ms. Whiting convened in recent months with clients, "who all told us to follow the video," she says.

A soft-spoken Midwesterner, Ms. Whiting has also become a public speaker and advocate for her company. When Nielsen last year recorded a big drop in the number of African-Americans watching network television, Rupert Murdoch -- whose Fox Television group stations took rating hits -- accused Nielsen of disenfranchising minority viewers. Ms. Whiting appeared at a U.S. Senate hearing and at city council meetings in Los Angeles and elsewhere to tell politicians that minority viewers weren't being undercounted; they were simply watching more cable than network programs.

To handle so many new challenges, Ms. Whiting frequently asks herself what jobs she most needs to do first. "I try to separate what I can do from what I have to do," she says. As CEO, "I have to focus on our next steps and then assign the execution to others," she adds.

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