Management Lessons From Tony Soprano

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The Sopranos run has ended. Easily one of the best television shows of the past 40 years (as long as I’ve been watching), it’s more than just great entertainment. The show also provided lessons for executives in today’s (more) legitimate business organizations:

When it comes to people, do what’s right for the firm, not your friends. An article in yesterday’s Boston Globe claimed that to be successful in today’s organizations, it was more important to be liked than to be good. That might be true — but it doesn’t make it right.

There’s no doubt Tony Soprano demanded and rewarded loyalty from his lieutenants and captains. But when Vito was discovered to be gay last season, it was Tony who reminded everyone that Vito was a top earner. And more recently, when he realized that Christopher was more of a liability than an asset, he “fired” him, even though Christopher was his nephew. Making tough decisions to support unpopular employees or get rid of cronies is rare in many of today’s large organizations.

Alliances rarely work, and your best allies might come from unexpected places.
The alliance between the New York and New Jersey families was destined to fail. It might appear that the Soprano and Leotardo families would have complementary goals, but the “contractual” agreements between them weren’t strong enough to overcome the inherent mistrust of the personalities involved.

Organizations have different cultures with strong personalities who often have competing goals and objectives — which are only two of the reasons many long-term alliances fail. Yes, I understand that we’re living in the “age of collaboration.” But the type of collaboration that’s called for is short-term — collaborating on an immediate task or project, and then moving on.

On the other hand, parties that you wouldn’t think would be allies — law enforcement, sometimes turned out to be just that. A few years ago, it was in the form of a character played by John Hurt. This isn’t a great example, since he was basically a crooked cop. But more recently, it was the alliance between Tony and the FBI agent — who ultimately tipped Tony off to where Phil was hiding — that proved to be one of the most strategic alliances.

Avoid over-reliance on one consultant. In this case, the consultant is Dr. Melfi. After seven years of therapy, she concluded that she couldn’t help him. Her background and training led her to approach problems in a certain way. A way that might not be the right way for every patient.

It’s like that with consulting firms. They tend to approach problems with a certain mindset and theory. If your firm’s problem and situation fits that approach, great. If not, sticking with it for seven years is an incredible waste of money. The problem is, this happens in many organizations. Consulting firms move from one project to the next and manage to stick around for years at a time. And the client firm ends up not getting the “outside” thinking that it needs.

I’m going to miss that show.

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