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The Frog and the Ox

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As the fable goes:

“Father,” said a little Frog, “I have seen such a terrible monster! It was as big as a mountain, with horns on its head, and a long tail, and it had hoofs divided in two.”

“Hush, child,” said the old Frog, “that was only Farmer White’s Ox. It isn’t so big either; he may be a little bit taller than I, but I could easily make myself quite as broad; just you see.” So, he blew himself out, and blew himself out, and blew himself out. “Was he as big as that?” asked he. “Oh, much bigger than that,” said the young Frog. Again, the old one blew himself out, and asked the young one if the Ox was as big as that. “Bigger, father, bigger,” was the reply.

So the Frog took a deep breath, and blew and blew and blew, and swelled and swelled and swelled; and said: “I’m sure the Ox is not as big as that.” At this moment he burst.

The morals:

  • Self-conceit can lead to self-destruction
  • Do not attempt the impossible.

Management Perspective: According to Noonan, most companies want to expand and grow. Growth can boost revenues, increase geographical coverage, enhance capabilities, and create more opportunities for employees to move up the organizational ladder. How fast is your company growing? Have seen additional opportunities for yourself? What special problems do you think growth can cause?

Although just about every business person believes growing is critical to a company’s long-term survival, companies can grow too fast and get too big for their own good and end up in pieces like the frog. Don Burr, founder of People’s Express Airline, had grand plans to grow his company as big as possible. In Competitive Advantage Through People, Jeffery Pfeffer describes what happened when the airline tried to grow too big too quickly.

People’s Express was an almost overnight success in the early 1980s. the airline acted quickly and aggressively once the federal government deregulated the industry. Its workers gave the airline a significant competitive advantage. How? People’s Express deliberately selected and trained its workforce to be the best in the business. The talent assembled by the airline proved to be a catalyst for its initial growth.

Everybody loved People’s Express. Business schools across America used it as a case study. Newspapers and magazines printed highly complimentary articles. Television programs like 20/20 held up the company as an example of how to successfully grow a business. It was all too good to be true. The advantage that company had when it first started out eventually became a major impediment for its survival.

People’s Express had a recruitment process that routinely screened one hundred applicants to find one new trainee. An applicant lucky enough to make the cut then attended five weeks of unpaid training. All this, and there was still no guarantee of being hired! Once trained, applicants still had one more hurdle to jump: score at least 90 percent on a company test. Then, and only then, did People’s Express deem a trainee qualified to join the organization. Once on board, new hires attended still more training programs aimed at creating self-managed teams. The airline’s screening and training process was comprehensive. It was also time-consuming, expensive, and in the end, totally incompatible with a company growing as fast as People’s Express was.

Sunny skies darkened. The airline hit turbulence. Its stellar workforce, the engine that powered its ascent, began to burn out. Illness and divorce rates took off. Morale nosedived. What was “Captain” Don Burr’s response? Grow bigger faster. It was inevitable that the company’s stock price wouldn’t remain in an upright and locked position much longer.

The strategy of rapid growth was incompatible with the systems for managing the workforce asserts Pfeffer. For instance, rapid growth is incompatible with a 1:100 employee selection ratio and with extensive cross-training – and led ultimately to the organization’s demise.

People’s Express went bankrupt in 1986. Texas Air eventually purchased what was left of the once high-flying airline. Nigeria has also witnessed the collapse of some airlines with ambitious plans.

Business Moral: Make sure your planning, processes, and systems are compatible with your overall business strategy.

References:

Noonan, David. Aesop & the CEO: Powerful Business Insights from Aesop’s Ancient Fables. Nelson Books

Pfeffer, Jeffery. Competitive Advantage Through People: Unleashing the Power of the Work Force, 228-9. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1994.

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