November 2014

Just about every day, another executive "steps down", "takes a break", "leaves to pursue a new opportunity" or some other euphemism for "fired" because of inappropriate behavior. What is occurring? Simply put, egos are out of control. Corporate leaders misunderstand who they really are and what they really represent. They cannot discern the differences between behaviors that engender success and antics that endanger success. Perhaps there was a time when executives mud-wrestled bikini-babes as a bizarre corporate rite of passage; if so, people of the time deluded themselves about its acceptability.

As we evolve, we recognize bad behavior, even when accepted or overlooked in small circles, is still bad behavior. Even if it comes with a title like "the Wolf of Wall Street", it is still bad behavior.

So American Apparel cans Dov Charney as CEO for alleged salacious behavior. T-Mobile forces CEO John Legere to apologize for his vulgarity about competitors. Numerous other examples abound in Marianne Jennings' text: "The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse". What works for Miley Cirus will not work for CEOs, but they keep trying — oblivious to the damage to themselves and their organizations.

What then are we to do? Frankly, stay clear of them!

You do not have such an out-of-control ego, but you might know someone who does. Or worse, you might work for them. Unless you are the thrill seeker who volunteers to take the wagon train of nitroglycerin down the bumpy road, get out of there! If you are in such a situation, I urge you to put as much distance as you can between yourself and that boss. His (or less likely her) explosive personality will damage everyone near them. If you sincerely care about this person, you will understandably have mixed feelings about leaving. By all means leave, but, before you do, take the path of courage.

Approach the boss with both compassion and candor. Explain that you have decided to leave, that you cannot bear to see him go down this path and that it is too painful to watch. You may wish him well, but express the hope he soon finds someone whom he respects, to give him the feedback that could help him succeed.

You may have heard the advice to leave a boss if you cannot learn from them because of their meager competence or if they have questionable ethics. Add to these reasons outsized ego. You often cannot read people's deep sense of ethics, but larger-than-life egos are easy to spot and easy to avoid. Do not swim near the edge of their whirlpool, or you may find yourself underwater.

Egos out of control

Knowing when not to take charge can be as important as leading the charge. I recall a strategy development assignment that included an issues analysis with the top 20 leaders of a high-tech manufacturer. Following the workshop, my client President and I remained in the large conference room to privately discuss the next steps.

Immediately, he asked "When can I get started? I can't wait to get the war room going."

"We can start on Monday," I replied. "But perhaps not in the way you may think."

"What do you mean?"

I showed him a piece of paper with a large oval and a series of little notches around it. "Can you guess what this is?"

"Well it looks like the table in this room."

"Excellent! And what might the little marks be?"

Puzzled, he shrugged his shoulders. "Those are the number of times someone in the workshop we just completed, spoke for thirty seconds or more. Can you tell me where you were sitting?"

Sheepishly, he correctly pointed to the spot where 22 of the 28 marks were located.

He braced himself for what I was to say next. "This dynamic will not work in a war room. Everyone will freeze, awaiting your every decision and every analytical conclusion. We cannot afford that. Your people need to do the analyses, derive sound conclusions and make recommendations."

He protested: "This strategy will impact my career! I must be involved."

"You will be," I assured him. "Every recommendation they make will require your final approval or rework. Every Thursday afternoon, we will present what we have learned and what we believe are the implications. You will confirm that we are on-track or tell us to take a different path. You remain in charge of final acceptance, while the Core Team will do all the in-depth analysis."

He reluctantly relinquished his ever-so-tight grip on the resources. After a few reviews, his people surprised him with how smart they were. He never realized how underutilized they had become.

If you have an abiding need to intensely manage, find at least one small project for each member of your team where they have complete control without your input.

What happens next may surprise you.

Use the invaluable tool of an Issues Analysis, to launch a strategy development effort. Send a survey to between 30 and 50 people in your organization. Participation is anonymous. Spread the involvement across at least three organizational levels, and every departmental function (i.e. operations, IT, HR, marketing, sales, customer service, R&D, etc.). Ask this question:

"As we determine our strategy for the next three years, there may exist internal barriers, challenges and issues that hold us back and throttle our growth. Please list them."

Allow them up to ten responses each. This means you will receive between 40 and 400 different responses from a group of 40 people. You will recognize patterns in the responses that you can aggregate into actionable issue buckets. These may relate to on-time delivery, internal communications, software platforms, unnecessary reports, broken approval processes, innovation, and lack of clarity or understanding about the real strategy. Trust me this exercise always, always results in a major eye-opener for management. Do not give them bucket-topics, because you would then be leading them to invent issues that are not already on their minds. Also do not group ideas into buckets too big to develop meaningful projects to tackle. These mega-buckets might seem logical, but categories such as people issues, process issues, production issues, are simply to broad to be actionable.

Later, in a workshop, you can prioritize the buckets you have created. Assign a low-medium-high assessment to each bucket's potential economic impact if resolved. Similarly, rate the ease with which you might be able to fix it. Obviously, you tackle the High Impact — High Easy ones first. This category will not have many buckets, but resolution of these few, will generate excellent momentum. Having the confidence to identify, prioritize, and resolve all of your major internal barriers, will make your strategy much more credible to the Board of Directors or to your executive corporate leaders.