Monday, August 31, 2009

CEO Sissy Factor

The Trouble Your Business School Buddies and Networks Can Get You Into

Recently, I was having dinner with the leadership of a large industrial company and the dinner table discussion turned to crises, reputation, and other kinds of problems I come across in my work. The CEO, someone I just met, asked a really interesting question. “What common leadership factors or threads do you find that might cause the crises management failures you wind up handling?”

While all crises have unique patterns, this is a Chief Executive Officer asking, and his question is really about people like himself. Here’s what I told him and his assembled managers:

There are three common behaviors among top leaders, it seems to me, that either cause, complicate, or contribute to management failures and make problems or crises worse.

1. Predecessor Paralysis

The CEO defers taking action, primarily because it will unduly embarrass or otherwise reverse or repudiate something a key predecessor has accomplished or put in motion. The thinking is, apparently, that the CEO “wouldn’t want to make their predecessors look silly.”

2. The Staff Straightjacket

The senior staff can’t agree on what an appropriate plan of action might be. They seem torn between neither wanting to offend key players or key peers, nor wanting to put themselves in any particular danger. You’ll hear the refrain, “You’ll make us all look bad, probably for no reason.”

3. The Peer or Pal Sissy Factor

This is when a buddy, peer, or pal calls and says, “Don’t give in to those buggers, you’ll look silly and foolish, and you’ll make it much, much harder for the rest of us. Besides, if you’re wrong about this, you’ll make us all look bad and set a precedent we’ll all have to live up to or live down.”

Bonus: The Jerk Factor

Some years ago, I had a client who pled guilty to hundreds of felonies. I worked very closely with the lawyers and corporate monitors to help this company resolve its issues, and to prepare for their new life and the impact of the guilty plea. We briefed managers on the company’s guilty plea the previous afternoon in Boston, by reading and then explaining the plea agreement.

Even after reading and hearing the plea agreement read out loud, the first question from the audience was for “the real story of what happened.” So I spent a little bit of time talking about the importance of understanding that the plea agreement is the story and the new tough rules, regulations, and sanctions under which the company would be operating for a while. At which point, the new president of the company (who really didn’t like me anyway) stood up and remarked, for all to hear, “Jim, when you are talking, it seems a bit like Sunday school around here.”

I responded by saying, “Bill, if my company just pled guilty to nearly three hundred felonies, I would think a little Sunday school is in order.” He didn’t laugh, although almost everyone else did. He was gone in four months, and I still occasionally consultant with the company after all of these many years.

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Blogger Joanna Lund said...

I really enjoyed your article, not least as I recognise many of those corporate characteristics from my own fire-fighting work. With corporate lawyers there is often that tension point, too; an inherent conservatism and litigation fear that can hamper critical crisis prevention. Lack of role clarity in crisis is, as you point out, a mortal flaw and one that can only be remedied by establishing, in advance, a comprehensive Crisis Manual that sets out specifically who the Chair, Co-ordinator and Communicators should be alongside other crisis team individuals. Your riposte to that rather delusional CEO is one that us mere mortals could only dream of! I shall be getting much vicarious, retributional pleasure from it for a long time to come. My trouble always is, I only think of those knee-drop one-liners once I've walked out of the door! Great post - as ever!

September 3, 2009 at 10:42 AM  

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