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Stop being nice. Sometimes, you need to be irritatingly right!

Nonprofits are filled with optimistic and wonderfully generous people.  The world undoubtedly needs lots of these folks. This is all well and good when all is calm, and your organization happily continues to thrive.  But what happens when you encounter tough times?  That is exactly when your organization’s management or board realizes it may need a leader who constantly questions popular opinion and stops at nothing to examine underlying data.  This type of leader is good at predicting market threats or severe headwinds.

Where does this idea come from?

I recently read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about just such an infuriating person. He is a JP Morgan Chase & Co research analyst who downgraded General Electric’s outlook years before nearly anyone else saw it coming.  His name is Stephen Tusa. 

Who is Stephen Tusa and how does he consistently get the jump on his peers predicting problems that lie just beyond the horizon?

The lengthy article (GE’s Nemesis: An Eerily Prescient Bear, June 8) used the following phrases to describe Mr. Tusa and his character:

“…his opinion remains at odds with new GE leaders.”

“…a healthy skepticism…”

“…constantly questioning…”

“…he had a lot of nervousness…”

“…verbally thrashing his opponents…”

“…pugnacious and blunt style…”

“While he is publicly cordial…he is arrogant, takes personal shots and gloats about his research.”
“…the swagger…”

“…reputation for tough questions…”

“…questioning persisted…”

These adjectives describe an individual who is in fact often nervous about taking any sweeping remarks or broad generalizations at face value, particularly when the supporting information appears too optimistic.  It’s exactly during those moments that Mr. Tusa dives into the issues and spends a lot of time interviewing sources in the industry to confirm his suspicions or ideas.  He simply does not accept superficial statements.  He must verify all the so-called truths. 

He’s not intimidated by power and position.  In political terms, Mr. Tusa does not have a problem speaking truth to power.

The article recounts a GE stock analyst conference call.  Mr. Tusa interrupted the GE chief financial officer in the middle of his presentation to ask if GE would reduce its cash flow projection that year.  The CEO, Larry Culp, kept dodging the question but said he would let the analysts know soon.  Five weeks later, Mr. Culp and Mr. Tusa, sat down together in a public session at a JP Morgan conference.  There Mr. Culp provided the information Tusa demanded a month earlier: He finally admitted to Tusa that GE’s cash flow would be negative.  

Bill Gates, co-founder of the world’s largest foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, sent a tweet just over a week ago that supports Stephen Tusa’s highly skeptical world view. Gates commented on how – intentionally or not – news media and the people around us tend to absorb certain stories – particularly vivid and horrific stories – and then those stories into lenses that we use to distort our view of all sorts of events.    Gates, like Tusa, looks for context and more data to explain these events.

“I’m always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us,” tweeted Gates on June 11.  “As my late friend Hans Rosling [author of Factfulness] would say, we must fight the fear instinct that distorts our perspective.”

Gates does not accept someone’s viewpoint without questioning that person and drilling down further into the hard data. Ask questions. Dig for data. Ask more questions. That’s the Gates’ approach to learning the truth.  That’s also Stephen Tusa’s approach to facing an undistorted and potentially upsetting reality.

Let’s summarize what makes Mr. Tusa such a great predictor.

First, he is persistent.  He peppers the outside marketplace experts with lots of questions. This somewhat aggressive approach enables him to gain the unvarnished facts about a company’s performance, from far outside the company itself.  He avoids company propaganda or bias.  He wants to see the world as GE’s competitors might see it.  As mentioned above, Tusa wants context and a clear view of what the data really means. Parenthetically, and interesting to note:  GE executives investigated Mr. Tusa’s statements to determine if he learned his facts from an insider leaking information to him.  He did not.  They discovered he came by his information honestly.

Second, he treats everyone alike. Everybody gets the third degree.  He spares no one.  Every person he speaks with needs to show him they have answered as completely and as truthfully as they can.  He does not accept half answers or answers that break with logic.

Third, he questions himself, always.  As tough as he is on his subjects, he is doubly tough on himself. He tries to avoid over-confidence, unless that certainty is supported by the facts.

You may not want Mr. Tusa as your best friend, but you certainly want a Stephen Tusa on your nonprofit’s management team.  An irritating, constantly-questioning-the-data management style may bother you today but could save your nonprofit in the future.