October 11, 2015

The Challenges of Being Visionary

I have often been described as a visionary, one who sees things before others do. It’s a very astute characterization. Being visionary does not always mean being correct, although I have been more right than wrong, but it does mean that the more my assessments and forecasts vary from how others see the world, the more stressful and difficult it is for me to persuade them.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, frequently dramatized the message that people who saw the world differently from others often experienced difficulty and, in some cases, tragedy. Two of my favorite episodes that made this point powerfully were “Terror at 20,000 Feet” starring a young William Shatner as an airplane passenger who sees gremlins trying to take apart an airplane wing while the plane is in flight, and “The Howling Man” in which an American is recounting a story to his housekeeper about why he is imprisoning a man whom he says is the devil. In both cases, the passenger and the American seem psychotic and their perspective is disregarded. In both cases, at the end of the show, they are proven right.

Thankfully, no one has ever accused me of being psychotic. Unlike the William Shatner character, I did not get carted away in a straightjacket, and, unlike the American in “The Howling Man” the consequences of others not believing me did not result in the devil being unloosed upon the population. Nevertheless, my experiences have been challenging.

In the early 1990’s, when I believed that Pitney Bowes could spend less on health care, increase employee contributions, improve health, and improve employee satisfaction, I was perceived as a naïve person going against several decades of conventional wisdom. Even today, those who believe we can increase health, reduce costs, provide universal, affordable health insurance and improve quality and decrease government budgets are perceived as unrealistic.

I had to fight conventional wisdom, although there was good research to support me, the Dartmouth Atlas work led by Dr. John Wennberg, just as there is good evidence today. However, my point of view was so threatening to those who had built careers on marketing services consistent with a different point of view that they fought me and the evidence. I was right, and I believe that the Pitney Bowes experience is broadly applicable. I believe that the reason Washington lawmakers have not tried to apply it broadly is that it threatens more deeply-held beliefs about the role of government.

When I believed that Pitney Bowes would need to sue the U.S. Postal Service for violating our contract rights in the 1990’s, almost everyone thought I was misguided, including, in the beginning, my general counsel. Over time, the management and the board of directors supported me, the lawsuit was filed, we settled, and moved on. Years later, I spoke with senior postal officials who told me that they felt I had no choice but to do what I did, but that their colleagues did not believe we had the courage to file the lawsuits. At the time, my view was influenced by the notion that the Postal Service’s actions were based on the perspective that we were simply their agent, and that they should control everything about the mail system. My position was that they were public servants entrusted with specific responsibilities relative to mail, and had inherently limited powers to go beyond that. This was not just a test of power; it was a philosophical difference about the role of government-operated services.

In 1999, two start-up companies challenged us with online postage solutions. My chief operating officer, Marc Breslawsky, and I were in a minority among the senior team in believing that these companies posed no threat to us. Many employees and high-level executives, one or two board members and many shareholders told me that the world had changed and that I was in danger of ignoring potentially disruptive innovation. The reason Marc and I turned out to be right is that we understood that disruptive technologies are successful only when they are superior to the older technology they replace and when they can be marketed profitably. Neither condition was met.

In 2003, I had my toughest challenge of all. I recommended to our management and our board of directors that we exit the non-core financial services business. The reasons for not exiting seemed compelling: we would experience lower earnings per share, lower net income, lower cash flow and lower investment return immediately after we would complete a sale or spin-off. Moreover, the exiting process would require audits for 10-20 year-old leasing transactions that would create the risk of having to change the accounting for transactions because they were so old that the documentation might not exist or that people’s memories about why they made certain decisions would have faded.

The only argument in favor of exiting the business was the longer-term, hard-to-measure risk of being in the financial services business. It took me three years to complete the process, and I had to overcome opposition from many who weighed the risk probabilities differently from the way I did. We completed the sale in July, 2006, and, fortunately, were out of the business when the financial markets began their collapse a year later. Those who disagreed with me were not wrong about they believed could happen, but they could not fathom how bad the financial market collapse could be, and what effect it could have on the company’s stock price and prospects.

I could give many other examples of where I took a contrarian position, and was perceived to be on the wrong side of the argument, but, suffice it to say, being visionary is not always a comfortable place to be. All of these situations were different in terms of why I had difficulty, but they had certain common characteristics:

  • I was not perceived to have any special knowledge or expertise, so, despite my brainpower and authority position, others felt that they could look at the same situation and have equal or better insight. In each case, I had to get them to reinterpret common facts.
  • My position did not lack for clarity or simplicity. It was not a communication problem. It was a difference of perspective or philosophy.
  • The opposition often sprung from much deeper points. What was at risk was not just the specific issue, but some bigger fear or anxiety, whether it was upsetting a broad world view, putting stakeholders at risk of being criticized or sued for a wrong turn, or calling into question how people were earning their livelihood, or even just weighing risks differently.

I have concluded that I really could not have done anything differently, except to have understood the difficulty going into these situations. That’s just the way visionaries have to operate. As I have gotten older, I tend to take these situations, which, fortunately, do not come along as often, less stressfully, and just recognize that seeing the world differently is a mixed blessing.