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Fake news, courtesy of you

Fake news is not just a political problem: It's how companies and leaders lie to themselves and others about what's really going on.

4 min read


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Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Fake news has been in the news quite a bit lately, in more ways than one. Everyone agrees that it’s is a bad thing — for our politics, for our culture, and for our communities. But it’s also bad news for companies and even worse for corporate leaders. Unfortunately, it’s prevalent in both.

I was confronted with that difficult truth when a friend of mine asked me over coffee if I had any New Year’s resolutions. I shared with him that I had been pondering the results of a recent personality test that was creepy-accurate and demonstrated that the expectations I have of myself do not entirely align with who I am (apparently, this is not such a rare thing).

Perhaps, I thought, a noble resolution would be to try to reconcile the two. It struck me that the extent to which each of us camouflages who we are or tries to be something we’re not is our own personal form of fake news. In the long run, this form of fake news does no good for us or everybody with which we’re associated.

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Former Lands’ End CEO Federica Marchionni’s story may be a case in point. She was recently forced out of the company after just 19 months on the job. According to reports, Marchionni thought Land’s End needed less stodginess and more fashion. But longtime Lands’ End creative director Lee Eisenberg said that “fashion” had long been “The ‘F’ word at Lands’ End,” which may have been why Marchionni was unable to fully gain the trust of Lands’ End’s employees.

It didn’t help that soon after she started at the company, Marchionni led a town hall meeting at Land’s End’s Wisconsin headquarters and said the surrounding area reminded her of Santa Severa, the seaside village near Rome where she grew up. Yet employees couldn’t help but notice that she spent most of her time in her New York office and only about one week a month at the company’s headquarters.

Turns out the board of directors had to go so far as to stipulate in Marchionni’s employment agreement that she was required to be in Wisconsin for holiday parties and other social events. People notice that kind of incongruity.

Land’s End had been underperforming long before Marchionni joined the company, and as such, it presented fertile ground for fake news. Years ago when my own company ran into an existential crisis I spent so much time spinning (to myself as well as my staff) that I might as well have been a cable TV commentator. In my defense, it was an attempt to cope with circumstances unfolding around me about which I had little control and a great deal of confusion. But it didn’t help the situation.

And I now know (heck, I knew even then) that people could see through the tall tales I was, however inadvertently, trying to tell.

Which brings up an important point. Shady political partisans distribute fake news with deliberate intent, but in most companies — and in most corporate leaders — fake news is inadvertent. Call it a byproduct of denial. We don’t like admitting we may have been a bad match or are in over our heads, even if it’s not our fault.

That’s especially true of hard-charging people who rise to the top. Sometimes it takes company-threatening circumstances to snap someone out of denial, and in some cases not even then (think Blockbuster, Circuit City, Nokia, Sears, and many more).

This is yet another reason why there can be no overestimating the importance of emotional intelligence in business. Fake news is hard to spot when it’s in your own feed. As the new year begins, I encourage you to take a few minutes to consider what yarns you may be spinning to your staff, not to mention yourself. And recognize that, while it might read well, avoiding the truth never ends well.