I love Ken Allman like a brother. He’s the most intelligent CEO I’ve ever been blessed to work with. And he’s a pretty cool dude to boot.
About ten years ago, I started popping the big question to him. No, not that one, the other one. “Ken, will we still be relevant in five years?”
I’ll never forget the first time I asked him that question. First, there was about one minute of dead air, which seemed like an eternity. Then he said, “That’s a great question.” I can’t tell you the rest of what he said, but I thought his feedback was profound, which is typical during any conversation with him.
Ken is not the only person I ask this question to. I ask every CEO I work with. However, timing and context are everything, so I pick my spots carefully when I pop this critical question.
The Bell Labs Mentality
I read The Effective Executive annually and am continually amazed at what sticks out after each read. In my most recent reading, I was especially impressed with what I learned about Theodore Vail.
Drucker calls Vail the most effective decision-maker in U.S. business history. As president of Bell Telephone from 1910 through the 1920s, he created the largest private business in the world.
However, he made a decision that his Board did not fully support in the beginning. Vail questioned, “How can one make a monopoly (Bell Telephone) truly competitive?”
Vail realized without competition, such a monopoly would rapidly become rigid and incapable of growth and change according to Drucker. Vail’s idea to address this fear was genius.
Making the Present Obsolete
Transatlantic telephone service. Development of the vacuum tube amplifier, the first transistor. The Unix operating system. The C programming language. Claude Shannon’s information theory that laid the foundation for the digital revolution era.
What do each of these innovations have in common? These achievements were birthed from Bell Labs.
Bell Labs grew out of Vail’s idea that one can organize the future to compete against the present, even if it means cannibalizing today’s profits. That’s why Vail’s board was leery of the idea. They were focused only on the present.
Vail’s foresight was validated when Bell Labs went on to become one of the most prolific research institutions in the world, responsible for numerous innovations that transformed the telecommunications industry. When I think of Vail’s decision to fund Bell Labs, I believe he continually asked, “Will we be relevant in five years and beyond?” Healthy paranoia is one reason he wanted a future that could be competing with the present.
Circling Back to Ken Allman
Earlier, I referenced Ken Allman. He’s the founder and President of PracticeLink. Ken was the first entrepreneur to create a physician job board in the U.S. over thirty years ago. Today, they are still the number one player in this all-important service. I continue to be awed and inspired by his vision, tenacity, intellect, and how he cares for others. His firm is far more than a physician job board.
“Ken, will we still be relevant in five years?” That question is not solely for Ken. It’s for you, too.
As always, if you need a sounding board, let me know.