Fast Path to a Golden Parachute – Eleven Accelerators
Mapping the Path
David Dotlich and Peter Cairo are a couple of executive coaches with experience coaching top executives. Along with psychologist Robert Hogan these guys put together a sort of laundry list of why executives fail. Or, in our terms, execute a fast path to a Golden Parachute.
Of note is that the list that these folks put together centers on behavior and psychological attributes of people. The list of career derailers does not include things like lack of domain knowledge, industry expertise, or other sorts of “knowledge-based factors” or “vision/strategy factors”. This is not to say that CEO’s do not lose their jobs based on performance unrelated to behavioral factors.
Behavioral and Psychological Factors that can Speed Your Exit
The focus of their list is behavioral and psychological attributes that cause people to undermine and/or sabotage their careers.
According to David Dotlich and Peter Cairo
The third thing that we know for a fact about leaders is that perhaps two-thirds of the people currently in leadership positions in the Western world will fail; they will then be fired, demoted, or kicked upstairs
… leadership failure is a behavioral phenomenon.
… leaders fail because of who they are and how they act in certain situations. Especially under stress, they respond with a pattern of behavior that can sabotage their jobs and careers. They rely on a specific way of thinking, speaking, and acting that ultimately causes them to fail. Many times, they’re not even aware that their behaviors have become reflexive.
A central focus – The inability to build a team
From Dotlich and Cairo
The most common reason for their failure will be their inability to build or maintain a team.
Their inability to build a team will be a function of certain dysfunctional dispositions, interpersonal tendencies that are usually invisible during job interviews or assessment center exercises.
These tendencies usually become apparent when people are under pressure or when they let down their guard. Moreover, there is considerable consensus regarding the nature of these dysfunctional dispositions. They reliably fall into eleven categories, and they can be assessed with considerable fidelity.
What’s so bad about failure? It could be very lucrative
- Merrill Lynch – $161 million to O’Neal and $200 million to Thain for 9 months of work
- Citi Bank – $40 million for Chuck Prince
- Bear Stearns – $61 million to James Cayne
- Countrywide – $110 million to Angelo Mozilo
- HP – $21 million to Carly Fiorina
- Home Depot – $210 million to Robert Nardelli
Eleven Accelerators to a Golden Parachute
Dotlich and Cairo put a lot of collected wisdom together based on their executive coaching experience into a book (what did you expect?). They identified eleven behavioral derailers that were consistently found in senior leaders and CEOs who failed.
For each of the behavioral career derailers, the authors describe the behavior, provide a short story about a CEO or executive that exhibited this behavior, provide a short diagnostic set of questions that you can use to determine if you have “cross the line” into the behavior, provide a set of signs and symptoms of the behavior, and then provide advice on how to avoid this behavior. So, there are 11 chapters for each of the 11 career derailers.
The book ends with chapter 12 which describes why CEO’s succeed. The upshot is that you need to be aware of these behavioral aspects that have been shown from experience to underline and self-sabotage careers. It’s a pitch for executive coaching, and self-coaching as an alternative.
I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum capabilities.
Executive coaches are not for the meek. They’re for people who value unambiguous feedback. If coaches have one thing in common, it’s that they are ruthlessly results-oriented.
Fast Company Magazine
If you want the whole story, read the book
Why CEO’s Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top and How to Manage Them
Here are the eleven accelerators to a golden parachute along with the signs and symptoms
- Arrogance: You’re right and everybody else is wrong.
- Melodrama: You always grab the center of attention.
- Volatility: Your mood swings drive business swings.
- Excessive Caution: The next decision you make may be your first.
- Habitual Distrust: You focus on the negatives.
- Aloofness: You disengage and disconnect.
- Mischievousness: Rules are made to be broken.
- Eccentricity: It’s fun to be different just for the sake of it.
- Passive Resistance: Your silence is misinterpreted as agreement.
- Perfectionism: Get the little things right even if the big things go wrong.
- Eagerness to Please: Winning the popularity contest matters most.
1. Arrogance: You’re right and everybody else is wrong.
Signs and Symptoms
A diminished capacity to learn. Arrogant leaders reinterpret data to fit their own worldview. Instead of taking in new information and adjusting to it, this type of leader reconfigures the data to fit strongly held views. Thus no learning takes place. Many CEOs today are encountering people, product, and organizational complexities with which they have no experience. Too often, this doesn’t stop them from feeling certain they know what to do. Similarly, arrogance discourages other people from giving this type of leader information. They’ve experienced the contemptuous stare, or the unwillingness to accept an idea contrary to the existing perspective. As a result, people stop trying to provide certain types of information and ideas, knowing they’ll be skewered if they do. Arrogance, then, becomes an obstacle to learning. In today’s environment, a leader who can’t learn and adjust is someone who’s bound to fail.
An offputting refusal to be accountable. In other words, such leaders don’t take responsibility for their errors. At senior levels, it is easy to blame others: “The organization doesn’t get it,” “The team didn’t execute,” or even, “The economy didn’t behave.” This demoralizes everyone around the leader and often makes bad mistakes worse. Excessive pride prevents people from seeing what they’re doing wrong so they end up compounding their mistakes. Even the most brilliant of leaders can act this way.
Resistance to change. Everyone knows a CEO or other top executive who achieved success doing it “my way” and then refused to depart from an earlier formula for success. These leaders are so absolutely certain that they possess the only right and true map that they resist anything that takes them off their chosen path. Many times they are correct, but more often this position leads to debacle and dismissal. Some of these leaders, however, know they must give the appearance of embracing change. They’ll verbally endorse a new strategy and talk about changing with the times. But in their heart of hearts, they’re convinced they know what’s best and will resist change behind the scenes. This of course sends a confusing message to everyone and makes it difficult if not impossible to implement new policies and programs.
An inability to recognize one’s limitations. Arrogant leaders believe that they can do everything well. They are blind to their deficiencies, and this makes them dangerous to themselves and others. To a certain extent, this blindness should be expected. When you’ve excelled at school, mastered a variety of assignments, and bested your competitors, it’s natural that you should feel invincible. The problem, of course, is that this is an illusion. CEOs who believe they can handle every situation and who are willing to make decisions in areas where they have little or no expertise ultimately create tremendous problems for themselves and their organizations.
2. Melodrama: You always grab the center of attention.
Signs and Symptoms
Lack of focus. While melodramatic leaders can be engaging, outgoing, and interpersonally skillful, they can lose sight of what’s important. The melodramatic leader will often say whatever comes to mind in order to impress, motivate, or attract attention. The problem, of course, is that the resulting comments may not be altogether coherent or congruent so the listeners have trouble “connecting the dots.” People get confused about what the priorities are, resulting in wasted energy as they scatter in different directions.
A failure to develop people. It’s not that melodramatic leaders purposefully set out to stifle others. It’s simply the force of their personality that gets in their way. Melodramatic executives distract attention from others and focus attention on themselves. People feel that their opinions aren’t wanted or needed. In some instances, they’re intimidated by the melodramatic tone and presentation of this type of leader. Quieter, less assertive direct reports are especially disadvantaged when they have melodramatic bosses; they don’t feel the impetus to take risks, gain air time in meetings, or develop as leaders themselves. Melodramatic CEOs often lead teams populated with conservative, compliant direct reports who function well behind the scenes but can’t aspire to the spotlight.
Showboating teams. In some cases, melodramatic leaders take the opposite tack and surround themselves with people who are prone to copy the melodramatic boss’s style. It can be an attractive style, and it seems to get you noticed, so why not replicate it? If you’ve ever been in a meeting with a group of melodramatic executives, however, you know the downside of this style. Everyone is talking at once, attempting to out-argue and out-act the others. Little gets accomplished, but all the pontificating makes it feel like a lot is being done. We’ve witnessed Executive Committees that resemble frat parties—each member a “character in his own right” and determined to prove it.
Elevated expectations. Though we’ve listed this last, it’s a particularly pernicious repercussion. Melodramatic leaders often start out with a bang. Typically, they possess superior social skills, make great first impressions, and are promoted swiftly. They develop a following, a cadre of acolytes who believe their man or woman is headed toward the top. At some point, though, their expectations are dashed because they fail to follow through on commitments. They may talk a good game about the company successfully beating a competitor, or how they’re going to acquire and expand their base, or how next year looks like a record year that will bring big bonuses, but they don’t deliver on their promises and projections. People lose confidence in these leaders and feel like they’ve been misled.
3. Volatility: Your mood swings drive business swings.
Signs and Symptoms
People hold back in their interactions with you. Have you noticed that your direct reports aren’t forthcoming? Do they find it difficult to deliver bad news about failures, missed commitments, or unexpected events, or do they consistently avoid certain topics? Fear of your unpredictable outbursts may be cutting off your information flow. If this is the case, you’re likely to make decisions in the dark—or at least in poor light. If you can identify certain topics that everyone avoids when you’re around, your volatile nature may be to blame. Invariably, you’re going to make bad decisions with serious consequences because of incomplete information.
There’s a lot of mood management going on around you. The classic case of mood management is when people consult your secretary for a “weather report” before entering your office and adjust their behavior accordingly. Your direct reports try to read you; they’re tentative when they first approach, attempting to figure out if you’re in the right mood to broach a touchy subject. People don’t seem to be behaving naturally; your unpredictability causes them to say and do things that they normally wouldn’t say or do or to avoid things that would be routine on better days. Because they invest their energy in managing your moods, they monitor their own behavior, the conversation is controlled, and you can sense that they’re not connecting.
You feel like people are becoming increasingly distant. More specifically, your phone calls are returned with well-rehearsed answers, direct reports and colleagues are making an effort to stay out of your way, relatively few people are seeking your input, even as CEO. You’re not invited to share your point of view on an issue and must inject it. What all this could signify is that people don’t want to deal with the emotional baggage of a volatile leader. If they can’t figure out when you’re going to explode or go into a pessimistic funk, they find it wiser to keep their distance and maintain control.
4. Excessive Caution: The next decision you make may be your first.
Signs and Symptoms
Unwillingness to fire anyone. To the overly cautious executive, any significant action entails major risk, and that’s cause enough to shy away from action. This type of leader may come up with all sorts of excuses for not letting someone go—he’s been with the company for years, her pluses outweigh her minuses, he has too much potential—but it’s obvious to everyone this employee is a bad fit. The real reason the overly cautious leader won’t fire anyone is the conviction that it will lead to a terrible consequence—poor morale, high turnover, and so on. Variations on the failure-to-act theme include unwillingness to enter a new market, to form an alliance, to make an acquisition, or launch a product without extensive and excessive market testing. All these actions entail risk, and the overly cautious leader wants nothing to do with risk, especially when things aren’t going well. Failure results because a certain amount of action—and risk—is necessary for forward movement. If you never fire anyone, you will be stuck with at least some underperforming people, and the longer you’re in the job, the more underperformers you’ll be saddled with. The inability to act decisively on underperforming but loyal subordinates is a key predictor of CEO failure.
Churn instead of movement. The overly cautious leader gives the illusion of doing something by doing little things that don’t entail much risk—making a show of forming committees and setting timetables, of doing elaborate white papers and restructuring departments. But in the end, nothing much is accomplished. People spend inordinate amounts of time on what they think is a major project only to be frustrated when they learn that it was never implemented. Failure flows from frustration, especially when rising expectations are crushed by the reality of an overly cautious CEO.
Absence of strong opinions or engagement in debate. Highly cautious leaders prefer to remain on the sidelines during discussions, rarely offering their own point of view. This may seem a strange behavior for a CEO, but it’s more common than you might expect. Such CEOs see themselves as being watchfully wise, weighing all sides of the issue before making a decision, but their silence is indicative of a fear of rejection. They don’t want to take a stand for fear of being criticized or contradicted, or of having to engage in contentious debate. Being conflict averse, they prefer to insulate themselves behind an air of neutrality. The problem, of course, is that this neutral position creates a lack of direction and forward movement. Failure comes because the company is drifting rather than moving toward an objective.
5. Habitual Distrust: You focus on the negatives.
Signs and Symptoms
Relentless skepticism about other people’s motives. In any organization, people exist who are only out for themselves. But if this colors your thinking to the point that you question everyone all the time about their decisions and actions, then you’re going to alienate people and prevent them from building the confidence necessary to take good risks. If you’re always asking people for more evidence before you lend them your support, or if you frequently question their reasons for doing something, then you’re exhibiting this symptom of distrust.
Direct reports are highly defensive. Pay attention to how your people present ideas and reports to you. Are they constantly covering themselves and seemingly afraid to commit to anything until you give your approval? Are they justifying their actions or concepts in anticipation of your response? When people have distrustful bosses, they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to anticipate reactions. They play it safe in presentations, unwilling to risk all the questioning and skepticism they anticipate from a distrustful boss. If this is how your people react to you, you’re placing a negative sanction on bold, cutting-edge thinking.
Difficulty forging alliances with outside groups or companies. What has happened when you’ve attempted to partner with a vendor or work closely with any external group—a community organization, a trade association, a consultant? If distrust is a derailer for you, you’ve probably experienced a rough time on a number of occasions. Distrust often kicks into high gear when outsiders are involved. Whereas you might give an internal group the benefit of the doubt, outsiders are much harder to trust (distrustful leaders have a terrible time partnering with competitors on mutually beneficial projects). Like the worst sort of jingoist, you’ve divided the world into us and them, and the latter are automatically seen as untrustworthy.
6. Aloofness: You disengage and disconnect.
Signs and Symptoms
Becoming invisible. Everyone has a story about some top executive or CEO they worked for who never seemed to emerge from the corner office during a difficult time for the company; as rumors flew and the company sank, this leader became a shadowy figure, seeming to come and go at odd hours so as not to have to deal with people demanding answers to tough questions. While this type of deliberate invisibility may be an extreme example of how an aloof leader acts, it demonstrates a very common tendency to withdraw during a crisis. Other related symptoms might include scheduling numerous out-of-town trips, customer visits, or location reviews, or finding other excuses for being out of the office when people are under pressure and need personal support.
Ignoring conflict. Conflict is emotionally difficult, and aloof leaders have a hard time dealing with strong feelings. If you see yourself ignoring a battle between your direct reports or hoping that it will go away on its own, failure may be right around the corner. Aloof CEOs who allow differences among executives to go unresolved risk losing valuable people as well as creating a culture of simmering animosity. They rationalize that the highly paid executives who work for them should be able to resolve their differences, or that they “expect grownups to work through their differences.” In the worst cases, leaders beset by this derailer may not even be aware that conflict exists. They unconsciously screen out all conflict because they don’t want to confront it. And people around them learn to do the same thing.
People stop working hard. When CEOs are aloof, they run the risk of taking away a nonfinancial incentive for performance. With no pats on the back (or not enough of them), no celebration of goals achieved, and no rewarding emotional connection, people ask themselves, “Why am I working this hard?” Many times, people work hard because they feel a top executive is depending on them. They come in on weekends or wrestle with a tough issue because they have a relationship with the CEO and want to honor that relationship. On the other hand, accomplished, successful, highly paid executives complain bitterly when working for an aloof CEO who cannot manage to cough up a compliment. If you’re aloof, your emotional connections with most people in the company may be tenuous at best and you may not be motivating them to work at full capacity.
False assumptions and miscommunication run rampant. Because it’s difficult to talk to someone who is aloof, people tend to act on guesses about what such a CEO wants. Lacking the easy access necessary to clarify a directive, the CEO’s direct reports make assumptions about what their boss meant by that memo or that obscure pronouncement during a meeting. Execution suffers, a particular problem for aloof CEOs who have brilliant ideas but lack the ability to communicate them clearly.
Lack of cultural passion. In some companies, you can feel the excitement and energy just by walking the halls. You can’t pass a conference room without seeing people fiercely debating an issue or an office without hearing an animated discussion. People exude passion and celebrate victory while damning the competition. Aloof CEOs dampen this passion. Their detached leadership style sends the message that displays of emotion are discouraged. Their communication style, whether in person or via memos, phone calls, and e-mail notes, has a clinical detachment that doesn’t encourage personal conviction. Some people unconsciously mimic the aloof CEO’s style. Others simply lose their enthusiasm for the hunt. The “people stop working harder” symptom combines with “people stop working with commitment.” There’s no sense of urgency or dedication to achieving certain outcomes. Passion often results in great ideas and great implementation, and without it, the odds of failure increase.
7. Mischievousness: Rules are made to be broken.
Signs and Symptoms
See if the following warning signs apply to you:
People question your commitments and the projects you’ve started. In the past year, you may have launched many exciting new programs and pledged your support to a variety of initiatives, but your support is short-lived. You’ve moved on to other projects and initiatives and left the earlier efforts to flounder. Not only does this confuse people, it tends to alienate those individuals within your company—as well as customers and clients outside—who value sustained excellence and continuity. It also can prematurely kill projects and teams that might have delivered great results if nurtured over a period of time.
You don’t take the time to win people over. Mischievous leaders aren’t manipulators and schemers. Instead, they are seat-of-the-pants type leaders, acting on the spur of the moment and letting the chips fall where they may. They may disdain corporate procedure and processes, and rather than enroll people in new ideas or ways of doing things, they expect others to grasp the uniqueness of their ideas and positions. They expect people to fall in line, which sometimes happens. In other instances, though, people don’t buy into their rule-breaking, tradition-busting ideas. Rather than try and use their considerable charm to carefully discuss, persuade, and sell them, they ignore the dissenters, or worse, label them as “change resistant.” Sometimes they do so at their own peril.
Everything seems to rate a challenge. In other words, you don’t pick your battles. Perhaps you’ve received feedback from others to the effect that you can be a troublemaker. If you could read their thoughts, you’d hear them thinking, “What is that loon going to do next?” The devilish desire to stir things up can make others anxious, even frightened. You can see the grimaces when you talk about changing a policy you just changed or start talking about reorganizing a department after it was just reorganized. If doing things differently becomes a habit, you’d better break it or risk burning people out with your mini-rebellions.
You often find yourself finessing your mistakes. Mischievous leaders are skillful at denying or covering up mistakes. Their eloquence can convince an audience that it wasn’t really their fault even though it obviously was. They can deflect attention from themselves by raising another, more compelling issue, arguing over the meaning of words or their true intentions rather than actual consequences. Over time, however, these mistakes come back to haunt them because they don’t deal with the issues head on. If you’re prevaricating, obfuscating, and rationalizing consistently, look inward for a mischievous derailer.
You’re easily bored. Mischievous leaders like others to join in their fun. If they’re not stirring the pot—if they’re not creating a certain amount of commotion—they lose interest. To avoid being bored, they provoke conflicts or take potshots. Details often bore them more than anything else, so they ignore them, much to the company’s peril. Mischievous managers are often poor at execution, because execution requires a certain amount of detail work, and details bore them. Another related symptom is impatience; they sometimes have short attention spans. This feeds into the earlier symptom of failing to develop people. If your eyes wander, you take important phone calls during meetings and conversations, or you’re inspired to continually relate your own experiences when your direct reports try to talk with you, those direct reports are not going to develop confidence in their own contribution.
8. Eccentricity: It’s fun to be different just for the sake of it.
Signs and Symptoms
Inability to prioritize. The eccentric believes that each and every idea is critically important, and so becomes attached to them. In a very real sense, the ideas become the eccentric leader’s children, and it doesn’t seem right to favor one over another. The eccentric leader can hold forth about each of the many initiatives and projects these ideas have sparked. But the team can’t figure out which one they should concentrate on because the leader is unable or unwilling to prioritize. The eccentric rationalizes this idea-juggling by thinking that the best one will “naturally” take precedence; that over time winning ideas will emerge. In most cases, this doesn’t happen. And when, through a natural organizational sorting of ideas and possibilities, the right projects emerge, they are pursued too late. People look to senior leaders to guide them through strategic direction setting and prioritization about where to invest their time, energy, and resources. In most companies, especially given the broad range of technologies and product innovations, options are many and prioritizing is crucial, and eccentrics let their people down here.
Going it alone. Being eccentric becomes a derailer when you can’t collaborate effectively. Deeply eccentric leaders are stubborn individualists. It’s not that they want to isolate themselves or believe they’re better than others, but their eccentricity is like a force field that surrounds them, repelling those who try to get too close. They frequently need their privacy. While they’re not really loners, eccentrics can appear that way to others and drive them away. They also enjoy playing with their ideas by themselves and this trait can also isolate them.
People don’t take you seriously. This may be a more difficult symptom to discern than the others. Eccentric CEOs who are failing often are viewed as a joke. They’re not hated or seen as incompetent, but their eccentric behaviors communicate that they’re not serious leaders. In many instances, this is solely because they are unpredictable, unfocused, or unable to execute. They cannot follow through consistently on great ideas and brilliant insights. To determine whether people take you seriously, think about the following questions:
9. Passive Resistance: Your silence is misinterpreted as agreement.
Signs and Symptoms
Confused and angry direct reports. Do your direct reports frequently seem uncertain or ill-tempered? This is a common reaction to a passive-resistant leader. When their boss doesn’t follow through on commitments, they’re initially confused. When their boss continuously thwarts their expectations—especially expectations related to commitments, deliverables, promotions, compensation, or resource support—they become angry. If you’re wondering why people are wary, indirect with you, or unwilling to believe your public commitments or sign up for your newest initiative—recognize it may be a sign of impending failure.
Rampant cynicism. If confusion is the first stage, and anger the second, cynicism is the third and most alarming response to a passive-resistant leader. Listen for comments that suggest people distrust management, that indicate they don’t believe promises will be kept. You may still have time to step back from the edge when confusion and anger are the predominant reactions, but cynicism means people have come to lack faith in your leadership—sometimes for very good reasons.
Alliances, teams, and partnerships that fall apart. To the passive-resistant leader, the disintegration of a team or a partnership may seem to have clear causes. You may blame “personality conflicts” or “circumstances beyond your control.” One passive-resistant CEO whose alliances regularly failed to deliver blamed both bad luck and “young rebels” for these outcomes and never acknowledged it might have something to do with the way he first raised expectations with his initial enthusiasm and then systematically undermined these expectations with his private complaints and criticisms, which he didn’t discuss openly with his partners. Customers, strategic partners, and even vendors have a low tolerance for partnerships with passive-resistant people and will often terminate or exploit these partnerships.
Giving lip service. You say you believe in certain things, but know as you’re saying them that it’s not the whole truth. “I believe we should be a people-oriented company” or “I want to always put the customer first” are two common sentiments that CEOs regularly extol, but in the back of their mind a little voice is whispering, “Not completely!” If you make these statements frequently because you’re trying to meet the expectations of others and don’t want your real views known, then it’s a sign of this derailer.
10. Perfectionism: Get the little things right even if the big things go wrong.
Signs and Symptoms
Perfectionists are often fastidious. We’ve known executives with this derailer who obsessed over last quarter’s numbers, or who insisted that their team follow a certain procedure or policy to the letter even when it was obvious to everyone that it didn’t make sense to follow it so rigidly. These perfectionistic behaviors spring from good impulses—they are taking responsibility for doing the job right—but they become warped when people don’t differentiate between jobs and manage these impulses. If you want to find a perfectionistic leader, look for the one who seems focused on details but can’t seem to spot trends or macro changes in the marketplace. Here are some other signs and symptoms:
Difficulty delegating. This is the most obvious symptom of this derailer, though it may also be a symptom of other derailers. You can determine if the problem is perfectionism by examining the why behind this symptom. Perfectionists shy away from delegating because they want to be absolutely sure others do the job as perfectly as they would do it themselves. They think: “Bob won’t be as diligent about it as I would be; Stephanie won’t examine the situation from all angles; Tom won’t double-check the figures he gets from Joan like I would. It is up to me.”
Putting form over function, style over substance. It’s not that you believe that it’s more important to have a good-looking report cover than a good report. But you may spend an inordinate amount of time on secondary tasks, convincing yourself that “the little things add up to a big thing.” When CEOs are caught up in matters of form and style, they come across as superficial. They have the mandate and the power to change organizations, and instead they concentrate on changing the company’s vacation policy. Because CEOs must deal with long-range issues, time frames, and outcomes, sometimes it is satisfying to focus on the chair arrangements for the analyst meeting, the décor of the company plane, or the color scheme of the annual report. But if issues like these become common preoccupations, derailment is a distinct possibility.
Shortchanging people. When process engineering was popular a number of years ago, many companies focused on process mapping and reengineering. When reengineering as a trend began to peak, many leaders made the wise observation, “We were so busy reengineering processes, we forgot about the people.” Some perfectionistic leaders remain enmeshed in the process; they spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on Six Sigma, human resources policies, and other mechanical issues. There’s nothing inherently wrong in being a process person, but it’s a sign of impending failure when it takes away from a leader’s ability to connect with people on what’s important. People are a lot messier than processes, and it’s easier to redesign a flawed process than it is to deal with a flawed direct report. If you’re retreating from people and finding solace in processes, then it’s a sign that this may be your derailer.
Overlooking the obvious. If you regularly say to yourself, “How could I have missed that?” it may indicate perfectionistic tendencies. When you’re obsessed with the details, you miss trends and changes that can affect your business. Paying attention to subtle changes in the market—from the emergence of new global players to e-commerce innovations to new technologies—and responding to them with appropriate strategies is what leadership is all about. CEOs who overlook these big picture shifts or don’t pay attention when their direct reports communicate them may be perfectionists.
Getting caught in the vicious stress cycle. When leaders fail because of their perfectionist impulses, they often do so because they’re trapped in this stress cycle. Things start going downhill, and they respond by trying to do everything even more perfectly than they did in the past, hoping this will relieve the stress. In fact, this action ratchets up the stress because trying to be perfect is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. If you find yourself getting caught in this cycle, then this may be a derailer you need to watch out for.
11. Eagerness to Please: Winning the popularity contest matters most.
Signs and Symptoms
Early in your career, pleaser traits may have few or even no negative side effects. To all the world, you
Losing people’s support and loyalty. The irony of being a pleaser is that you ultimately don’t end up pleasing the majority of people. Pleasers try to promise everyone something, but these promises often can’t be kept because one promise negates another. We worked with a CEO pleaser who reflexively cut deals with everyone who came into his office, but the only deal that would stick was the last one he cut because the next person in line would convince him to change his mind about something he’d just agreed upon. Therefore, a common strategy became to have the last appointment of the day or to see him just before he left on a trip or vacation.
Unwillingness to stand up for your people. This feeds into the previous symptom of losing support and loyalty. You may be a leader who caves in when customers insist that they don’t want a specific sales executive working their account. You know your sales executive is implementing your agreed-upon strategy even though the customers don’t like it, but you don’t defend him when the customers raise objections about his performance. Or when a high-potential professional comes to you and complains that one of your direct reports is not a good leader—even though the alleged leadership infractions are a result of your request—you calm her down by apologizing for this direct report’s blunder and saying you’ll do something about it.
A lack of “fire” in the environment. In their quest for peace and harmony, pleasers inadvertently rob their companies of creative tension. They are so fixated on keeping everyone at peace that they send the implicit message that conflict is taboo. In meetings, people talk calmly and rationally, without much emotion in their positions. In one-on-one discussions, they all avoid making their position “personal”—they don’t make a passionate pitch about why they believe a given approach is right. As a result, these companies lack the combustible debates that energize teams and give rise to new ideas. While no one wants an environment where knock-down, drag-out arguments are the norm, the opposite is just as harmful to an organization.
Refusal to face the tough people decisions. We’ve saved the most prominent symptom for last, in part because we’ve already alluded to it. Difficult decisions regarding people are the central requirement of the CEO role. All senior leaders find these decisions difficult, but pleasers find them especially challenging when they involve good people who are not producing. They hate removing someone who has been loyal to them or with whom they’ve worked for years. They resist having to pick one of two good people for a key job. They don’t like being asked to referee a contentious debate between direct reports. When faced with these decisions, they may postpone them indefinitely or find some compromise position that allows them to avoid making a clear-cut choice. The negative consequences include carrying underperforming people and alienating direct reports who deserve promotions or the most important projects (and don’t receive them).