Get Real

Georges Plassat, the new chief executive of Carrefour SA, is under tremendous pressure to explain how he aims to turn around the troubled French retailer. The trick will be to go far enough—but not too far.

“The hands-on retail veteran will be looking to achieve a delicate balance between reassuring investors and not overselling his plans,” The Wall Street Journal reported today. “He is unlikely to walk in the path of his predecessor, Lars Olofsson, who was forced to shelve his own ambitiously presented to-do list and step down earlier this year after several profit warnings.”

Being realistic is a key part of good management. “Most objectives,” Peter Drucker advised, “can and should be phrased in optimal, rather than maximal terms.”

Not surprisingly for Drucker, being realistic begins with having a strong sense of what you’re trying to achieve. “Only a clear definition of the mission and purpose of the business makes possible clear and realistic business objectives,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

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At the same time, Drucker warned against having a realistic attitude become a straightjacket. Rather, he said, a truly innovative business “organizes itself to study even the wildest idea,” rather than dismissing anything out of hand, as it pushes itself to ask “continuously, ‘What would this idea have to be like to be practical, realistic, effective?’”

There is also the trap, as one tries to assess and articulate what’s really feasible, of focusing too much on the negative. “The manager who always knows exactly what people cannot do, but never sees anything they can do, will undermine the spirit of the organization,” Drucker warned. “Of course, a manager should have a clear grasp of the limitations of subordinates, but should see these as limitations on what they can do, and as challenges to them to do better. A manager should be a realist; and no one is less realistic than the cynic.”

How do you and your organization balance being optimistic and realistic?