Marshall Gordon was recognized by associates and competitors as a man on a mission. One of four members of the design team for a large chair manufacturing corporation, Marshall’s obses- sion with the creation of comfortable seating dated to a childhood back injury and a lifetime of pain. He recognized, more than most in the industry, the importance of designing chairs that offered some relief to those suffering from debilitating back, hip, and neck pain as well as help- ing people of all ages to avoid problems with proper posture. In his early days with the com- pany the staff jokingly called his approach the Marshall Plan, after America’s 1947 initiative (named for Secretary of State George Marshall) to rebuild European economies after the war. Like someone fighting to save the world, Marshall Gordon brought passion and a creative in- tensity to design meetings as if each drawing, each design tweak would change civilization as we knew it.
Single and with no apparent family or friendship ties, Marshall was married to his work. He seemed to thrive on 70-hour work weeks, although as a salaried manager, he received no overtime pay. Even his ‘‘down time’’ at meals or on weekends was spent sketching, studying the latest in ergonomics, or reconnoitering each design adjustment by competitors.
‘‘When you visit a furniture store, you fully expect to see Marshall, skulking about in trench coat and hat, checking to see what the competition is offering,’’ says fellow team mem- ber John Craddock. ‘‘We all laugh about it. The guy brings—actually brings—chairs to meet- ings and tears them apart to show us some miniscule discovery.’’
This obsession with chairs, pain and gravity, and one-upping the competition has made Marshall a valuable employee and earned him a reputation in the industry for creative design. Not since Peter Opsvik’s Gravity Balans ergonomic chair of the 1970s has anyone made such an impact on the industry. The effect of Marshall’s work on company profits is undeniable. The fact that competitors are chomping at the bit to lure him away is also undeniable.
But the Marshall Plan comes at a price. Over the 15 years he has worked with the com- pany, five as leader of the design group, there has been a constant turnover within the design group as frustrated workers leave the company to ‘‘get away from Marshall.’’
‘‘Anything you could learn from this brilliant and dedicated man is destroyed by his cold, calculating attitude,’’ Craddock complains. ‘‘I came to this company excited about the chance to work with him. But any knowledge he possesses is carefully guarded. His design ideas are perfect, while ours are picked apart. We all swear he has listening devices scattered around everywhere, because if the rest of the team huddles in some corner of the world to discuss a design idea, voila! He walks into the next meeting with our idea. Once when he was a few minutes late to a meeting, we thought we had beaten him and quickly presented our idea. Just then, he walks in, and announces, ‘Ideas must be in the air. I have something very similar,’ and throws his completed design on screen. Guess who won.’’
Marshall presents a continuing challenge to company management, having both incredible positive and negative influence on the culture. While his contributions to design and profits far exceed those of other employees, his negative effect on the culture and his team’s creativity and morale results in the loss of talented people and a climate of suspicion and discontent. His threat, ‘‘I can take my talents elsewhere,’’ hangs over top management like a sledge hammer.
Now, Craddock and Leslie Warren, other talented members of the design team, have approached management with their own ultimatum: Do something about Marshall or we resign.
1. If you were a top leader, how would you respond to the ultimatum? Be specific. Explain why.
2. What is Marshall missing with respect to his leadership abilities? How do you explain his poor leadership behavior?
3. If you were Marshall’s manager, how might you increase Marshall’s awareness of the negative impact he is having on his team? How would you guide him toward better team leadership, sharing his knowledge with others, and mentoring his team members?
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