The Dangerous Dozen Reasons For CEO Failure

Paul Heagen Uncategorized, Vision and Strategy Leave a Comment

Recipes for CEO failure are not new. However, tectonic changes in society and business are re-writing the rules for success. In my research and experience over 20 years, there are clear patterns of failure — most come early and are hard to reverse without that CEO readily accepting that failure is as much a prospect for them as success.
  1. Donning blindfolds and earplugs   To abhor or discourage conflict within your staff is merely to plow it underground, where it can have a more insidious effect. Conflict, by itself, is not inherently bad. It can bring interests and positions to the surface where they can be understood and weighed. Persistent conflict warrants an intervention, but the nature of business is that there is a honing of ideas that comes only on the grindstone of disagreement.
  2. Walking off the field with a tie   The nature of the CEO role is that you are a tie-breaker. (If the right decision is so obvious, you don’t need to be the one making it.) You will always have “tension” in the organization between competing needs and interests. Too many “balanced” or compromised decisions dilute resources and commitment. Make the tough calls and you marshal the energy and focus on your organization.
  3. Winning the battle of wits   Being called “the smartest person in the room” feels like a compliment. However, almost invariably when I hear someone say their CEO is really smart, it cloaks a hidden disappointment in that leader’s emotional intelligence. Your cerebral heft matters, but what matters more is unleashing the thinking of others. It is when others feel the freedom to exercise their own intelligence in your presence that you really develop the leadership capacity of your organization.
  4. Confusing calendars with cabbage rolls   Busyness is not a singular nor reliable sign of success. Being “crazy busy” may sate the ego (or lay bare a compulsion to be over-involved) but to have a calendar stuffed like a cabbage roll is not balance. It too often suggests you are not taking time to reflect, to think more spatially, and take in relationships or experiences that may feel “inefficient” but can stretch your mind and quiet your soul.
  5. Being a cheerleader instead of a coach   Celebrating every success at any level at the cost of honestly addressing the root causes of failure is the corporate equivalent of a “participation” award for two junior league sports teams in a championship game. While it should be our bias to “catch people doing the right things,” nothing irrigates the heart and mind like an honest, reflective assessment of a screw-up. They probably already know they flubbed; they’ll think more of you if you acknowledge it as well.
  6. Pocketing the moral compass  I have seen far too many CEOs turn a blind eye to the glaring misbehavior of a senior executive because “I can’t afford to get rid of them, I need them too much.” (I know of one case where three talented senior executives fled the business in despair until the CEO finally confronted the transgressor.) The moral transcendence of principles like honesty, respect, integrity and grandmother’s-apple-pie courtesy are woven inextricably in the human fiber. Ignore at your peril.
  7. Leaving no stone turned   The fact is, the trusted circle of truth-tellers shrinks when you get to the top. People will curry favor or try to shield you from unpleasant realities. Mining for the hidden truths about your business and your personal leadership must be an intentional and determined quest. The quandary of CEO level leadership is that you have all the responsibility with limited visibility into the true workings of your business. You have to work at getting to that view.
  8. Setting term limits on learning   Learning never stops, especially in a  role that is designed to look ahead and anticipate. Yet, how often do CEOs say they don’t need a coach or a development course? (I know of one CEO who actually scolded his executive staff that if they felt they needed a coach, they probably were not qualified to hold their job!) When you show the willingness to learn — including participating in the same 360-degree assessments as everyone else — you create a culture around learning that translates into much greater growth, innovation and resilience at every level.
  9. Getting stranded on your own island   Being at the top of an organization is inherently isolating — if you allow it to be. Too often, we tighten our circle of relationships to those of like mind, status or lifestyle. Yet, the world is so diverse and complex — and culturally rich – that the truly successful CEOs intentionally engage with a much wider range of people. It broadens their peripheral vision and sharpens their insights into the world around them. Don’t wait for retirement to do something crazy different.
  10. Tuning out the reality show   This freaks out some people, but we live in a world that expects vulnerability and authenticity. You don’t have to spill your guts, but people want to know your story, because in that they are reassured that dreams, fears, ambitions and anxieties are common to us all. I always like to ask people: “What makes you laugh, cry, angry and joyful?” because it exposes what really matters to them. And what really matters to you does matter to those who follow you.
  11. Copping out on purpose   Landfills are littered with binders from off-site leadership retreats that seek to articulate vision and mission but are little more than corporate babble. Purpose is a determination to change something for the better — the world, if you will, no matter how big or small your world is. When a company is willing to step outside its own interests to serve that calling, its people will step outside their interests to join you. You can’t buy that kind of passion and loyalty.
  12. Having a secret handshake   Your senior executive team is, well…a team. To telegraph the not-so-subtle signal that some people have a special relationship with you alienates others and suggests there is some “code” to access and influence outside of performance. It also puts you at risk of having an “inner circle” whose elite members may value their standing with you more than their obligations to speak truth to you or develop their own peer relationships.


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