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CEOs and leaders: Are you rewarding rabbit tricks?

3 min read


Listening to the CEO of the $500m manufacturing firm describe the exploits of his operations vice president was fascinating:

“Louis was incredible … again. When the product defect was discovered, he told his team to do whatever was needed to fix it. After two weeks of all-hands-on-deck work, Louis got the glitch fixed and we only lost two mid-size accounts. I don’t know how Louis does it, but I’m glad he does. This was the third time in the last two years he came to the rescue.”

Whoa! Third time in two years this guy pulled a rabbit out of the hat and he’s getting kudos? Might Louis — and others within the organization — be missing some blinking red warning lights and a robot declaring, “Danger, Will Robinson?”

Resolving a crisis is heady stuff. Who doesn’t like being the knight in shining armor? But getting addicted to the adrenaline of crisis management can blind managers to the need to move from rote “review and approve” to interactive “debate and decide” ways of running the business.

Three warning signals this CEO missed

  1. Failed to plan. We’re not talking about the need for legions of planners and analysts here, just the recognition that planning is a participative sport, one that’s fundamental to good business practices. One in which the impacts and consequences of changes are considered, even if it’s a simple “what if” discussion with all stakeholder groups. If simple planning isn’t a normal part of the process, “managers will rely on ingrained habits and reflex actions rather than deliberating and reflecting on new problems,” writes Danny Miller in “The Icarus Paradox.”
  2. Advanced case of ivory tower syndrome. The leadership team in this organization wasn’t connected to all levels within their business. It’s easy for executives to lose touch, says professor Michael Roberto. “Their professional lives involve a series of handlers — people who take their calls, screen their email, run errands for them, etc.” Being isolated further facilitates these executives buying in to their own urban myths. “Because these leaders need to feel they have all the answers, they aren’t open to learning new ones,” writes Sydney Finkelstein in “Why Smart Executives Fail.”
  3. Hooked on being superheroes. Stories like the one this CEO told are compelling on the surface: someone swooping in to save the day is like being part of a real-life action movie. The by-the-seat-of-your-pants drama can be irresistible, but what’s gotten lost is that the wrong behaviors and outcomes are being rewarded. Might a day or two of advance discussion, high-level planning, and risk assessment have saved the two customers this CEO says his company lost and avoided the uncalculated productivity loss from two weeks of remedial work? CEOs have the tough job (as does anyone who wants to be a leader) of keeping one foot in the innovation camp and one in continuity while also balancing confidence and hubris. John Baldoni, leadership consultant, reminds us, “Keeping your ego in check is an exercise in humility.”

Great CEOs achieve the right results by assuring that just the right amount of planning happens, rewarding the absence of ego-overload, and encouraging superheroes to best be viewed on the movie screen.

Jane Perdue is a leadership-development consultant, speaker, writer and the founder of Braithwaite Innovation Group.  Perdue is @thehrgoddess on Twitter and blogs at LeadBIG.