Only Leaders Need Apply



Linda M. Northrop

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

Software Product Lines

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: February 1, 2005

In 1981 Jack Welch assumed the position of CEO at General Electric (GE). He quickly unveiled an aggressive strategic redirection that transformed GE into 14 distinct businesses focused on three "strategic circles": core manufacturing, technology-intensive businesses, and services. [Tichy 89] He coupled his business overhaul with an initiative to revitalize the work force. He was passionate about his vision, and he relentlessly drove it to completion. But he didn't stay at the vision and strategy level of organizational management; he got involved in GE daily operations. In fact he never hired a chief operating officer (COO) despite the immensity of the enterprise he ran. He interacted directly with GE workers at all levels. He believed in his staff, listened to them, and gave them abundant feedback. He made them part of his solution, and embraced their good ideas. He broke down the walls between managers and subordinates. He was interested not only in his success but in GE's success. He spent years selecting, nurturing, and pruning a set of candidate successors. Welch's innovative strategies and management style transformed GE into a "highly productive, labor-efficient powerhouse with a staggering $200 billion-plus market capitalization." [Slater 98] Under Welch GE soared to the top of the Fortune 500.

My brother has been a high school football coach for over 35 years. His teams have amassed 19 championship and five unbeaten seasons. The high school even named the football stadium after him. He has encyclopedic knowledge of football and athletic ability to match, but it's more than his knowledge and skills that have made him a legend. He does all of the workouts with his team and keeps the training rules he sets for them. He gets to know each player and relentlessly drives them all to achieve their potential and then some. He is always in the game, not just directing it. One season he "fired" more than half of his first-string players for breaking in-season training rules. Despite vehement pressure from parents, the school board, and administrators, he refused to reverse his decision. As a result, the team was purged of its finest talent, and some of the remaining players had to play both offense and defense. He worked tirelessly with the skeleton squad, challenging them and spurring them on. He believed they could succeed, but more importantly, he made them believe they could succeed. And they did; they went to the championship playoffs.

Now what could Jack Welch and my brother possibly have in common? Simple: they are both leaders. And what do leaders have to do with software product lines? Everything: you can't just manage a software product line operation, you have to lead it. Managers control. Leaders spur an emotional energy that fuels an organization to succeed despite downturns and obstacles. Ron Temple led Cummins Engine Co. boldly through turbulence to success with its product line approach for engine-control software. Jaak Urmi did the same for CelsiusTech. In fact, there is a leader behind each story of successful product line adoption that we have studied at the SEI. And of the failed product line efforts we have seen, most either lacked a leader or lost one.

If product line management must lead to succeed, then we ought to take time out to describe the qualities of a leader. We have only to study the role models such as Welch, my brother, Temple, and others. Leaders are

  • intelligent. They know their business. They can quickly assess a problem and arrive at a solution.
  • self-assured. They are confident in their abilities and don't need continual gratification. They surround themselves with top-notch talent and are not threatened by good ideas and brilliance.
  • visionary. They can see the whole picture and can project it into the future. They see trends and can imagine solutions beyond what exists or what others think can exist.
  • enthusiastic. They have an unquenchable, contagious zest for their work and their organization.
  • competitive. They are hungry; they push and push to make things happen.
  • decisive. They are not afraid to make decisions and do so quickly.
  • committed. They believe in their goals and focus to achieve them.
  • flexible. They can change gracefully if a change is needed.
  • articulate. They are good communicators.
  • people focused. They have a deep interest in people and care about the people in their organizations.
  • realistic. They can recognize when things are not working or when a change in approach is needed. They strive for the maximum effort but not the impossible.
  • externally focused. They are in tune with the world around them.
  • open. They don't need to hide behind a cloak of secrecy.
  • honest. They tell the truth and expect the same of others.
  • trusting. They empower and have faith in others.
  • action-focused. They get things done. Leaders have what CEO coach Ram Charan calls "emotional strength" [Tichy 89].

Given these qualities, what do leaders in product line settings do that sets them apart? They

  • Pave the way.
  • Understand what it takes to succeed with product lines.
  • Know their business and their competition.
  • Establish a product line vision and tangible product line goals; communicate both clearly and often.
  • Take risks but have mitigation strategies in place.
  • Garner support (including stable funding) from their superiors, from customers, and from boards of directors and keep their superiors informed and enthused about product lines.
  • Know their people, assign them to jobs that match their talents, and hold them accountable.
  • Train their people so that each is knowledgeable in his or her product line role.
  • Act as the product line champions or recognize and support those who do.
  • Take an active role in the journey.
  • Execute their plans and deliver on commitments.
  • Make decisions quickly and communicate them openly.
  • Use process to drive decisions and accomplish work, not to delay it.
  • Drive the organization to succeed but reward achievements along the way.
  • Link pay directly to performance that supports the product line goals.
  • Keep track of all critical assignments.
  • Know what's going on in their organizations. They pay spontaneous visits to workers at all levels. They listen to the undercurrent and pay attention to morale.
  • Confront reality. If a strategy isn't working, they change it. If people aren't performing, they coach, reassign, or fire.
  • Believe in their people. They listen and provide feedback.
  • Don't get discouraged by the inevitable backlash to a technology adoption.
  • Know that they are there to support their people, not the other way around.

This is a long list that goes beyond what most would call management. Jack Welch refused to call himself a manager. He preferred the term "business leader." To him a leader is a teacher, a cheerleader, and a liberator, not a controller [Tichy 89]. If you are choosing the individual to be at the helm of a product line effort, choose a leader. If you are the person in charge, take heed.


[Slater 98]
Slater, R. Jack Welch and The G. E. Way: Management Insights and Leadership Secrets of the Legendary CEO. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

[Tichy 89]
Tichy, N. and Charan, R. “Speed, Simplicity, Self-Confidence: An Interview with Jack Welch.” Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989, Number 5: 112-121.

About the Author

Linda Northrop has over 30 years of experience in the software development field as practitioner, manager, consultant, and educator. She is currently director of the Product Line Systems Program at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI). The Product Line Systems Program works in the areas of software architecture, component, and product line engineering. Her current publications are in the areas of software product lines, software architecture, and object technology. She is co-author of the book, Software Product Lines: Practices and Patterns.

She is a frequently invited speaker at technical and corporate conferences and was featured in a television special on object technology aired by the British Broadcasting Company. Most recently she was a keynote speaker for the International Conference on Software Engineering 2001, the Aspect-Oriented System Development Conference 2002, and was selected as the 2001 Carnegie Science Center Award of Excellence for Information Technology recipient.

Before joining the SEI, she was associated with both the United States Air Force Academy and the State University of New York as professor of computer science, and with both Eastman Kodak and IBM as a software engineer. As a private consultant, she also worked for an assortment of companies covering a wide range of software systems. She chaired the first Software Product Line Conference (SPLC1) in 2000 and SPLC2 in 2002. Linda is the OOPSLA Steering Committee Chair and was OOPSLA 2001 Conference Chair. She is a member of ACM and the IEEE Computer Society, and formerly the Computer Sciences Accreditation Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the author's only and do not represent directly or imply any official position or view of the Software Engineering Institute or Carnegie Mellon University. This article is intended to stimulate further discussion about this topic.

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