Words You Can Count On

Sean Conner, Features Editor.
Sean Conner, Managing Editor.

The list of business buzzwords and phrases is a long one. Synergy. Strategic driver. Seat at the table. Core competency. We’ve heard all of them, and each of us probably has a select few on hand, ready to deploy at key moments. I even came across a buzzword forecast that maps trending buzzwords from launch to corporate acceptance to the inevitable end of their usefulness.

What’s interesting about buzzwords is how, in many business functions, they are imbedded as a foundational bedrock. In our interview with William Kane, the HR exec made an important distinction between how a buzzword sounds and how it actually operates within a given company. “You can go to just about any company’s website and see words like ‘respect,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘collegiality,’” he says. “While those are wonderful and noteworthy terms, it’s companies that translate those words into actions that have success.” Words themselves, after all, have no power.

When I was interviewing Harry Moser for this issue’s “Made in America. Again” feature, I realized what can happen when we mistakenly think the opposite. In tracking the decline of America’s manufacturing sector, Moser describes how trends quickly  became conventions that cost the industry 33 percent of its workforce. The buzzword culprit behind it all: offshoring. For many executives, the usage became synonymous with direction. What was less clear was the true cost of such a strategy, and it’s only now that companies like GE, Apple, and Lenovo are finding America might have not been such a cost-prohibitive place to make things after all.

As we were editing this issue, I put aside defining the new normal and my quest to find work-life balance, and instead looked to the stories of our featured executives to create a list of buzzwords that might capture something tangible, illuminated as much by story as by effectiveness. The list, printed here, is meant to push to the forefront new ways of looking at business, in all its components.

Picture-perfect leadership: Steve Hill presents a clairvoyant picture of what the greatest leaders actually do: “Leaders draw pictures of better futures, and I think those pictures have to be vivid and have granularity. You have to describe how much better the future would be if you make [a] change.”

Cash is king: For Jane Casey, cash is king. She reports that “less than 25 percent of companies can forecast cash three months out.” Only when a company truly assesses its cash flow can it respond nimbly to the next opportunity.

Managerial courage: Julie Fletcher believes management is as much about taking a stand as it is about leadership. “I believe in managerial courage,” she says. “You have to say what needs to be said, even if it’s not the popular answer, because it helps an organization become stronger.”

Do big: A pocket notebook provides constant company to Gary McLaughlin. In it, his big goal: hitting $100 million in revenue by 2017. “Some have told me it’s overly ambitious,” he says. “But I’ve told everyone to have the same goal on their list. Everyone needs a big goal.”

The strength of the shallows: With new demands pulling the modern executive in an unprecedented number of directions, being a generalist is a valuable occupation, especially for John Kahle. “You’ve got to enjoy doing a lot of things: being comfortable with legal knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says.

I doubt anything on this list will be showing up in the dictionary tomorrow, but that’s not my hope. Rather, these words sum up the insight of some of the country’s most prominent leaders—executives whose time is already of immeasurable value to their companies. Now, their words will be given an equal value in the parlance of the working world. Try them out, and if any of them finds a perfect home in an upcoming meeting, be sure to let me know.

Sean Conner