Seven Ways to Fail

Become an unsuccessful executive

by: Howard M. Guttman

Leadership Excellence

November 01, 2012

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In 2000, the average tenure of a CEO was approximately 10 years. By 2011, it had declined to 8.4 years, according to a Conference Board report. And a recent article in Forbes found that 40 percent of new executives don’t last 18 months in the job.

A generation ago, it was comparatively easy to run a major corporation. But today’s executives stand on a slippery slope, where all the old management truisms are up for grabs. Even winning has to be reinvented.

Given the turbulence, it’s not unusual for leaders to veer off course and derail. Some sage—was it Otto von Bismarck?—once said that, “Only the fool learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” In the spirit of learning from others, let’s take a look at seven ways in which many executives bring about their own lack of success.

1. Avoid feedback. Several years ago, we had a client who was convinced he had a winning formula. For years, his company had been growing by double digits. The leader strutted around like an all-knowing Oz. Ask for feedback? Forgetaboutit! Then the economic tsunami hit. Fresh thinking was required, but his team dared not step up to the challenge. As the company began to spiral downward, his team just stood by and watched. This executive could have benefited from feedback and input from those around him. But, believing that he was the smartest guy in the room, he refused to solicit others’ opinions. We eventually made the distasteful decision to terminate the assignment, rather than watch this leader become another executive-casualty statistic.

2. Stick to the status quo. In today’s environment, sharp turns and S-curves abound. The game keeps changing. It’s easy to be seduced by the status quo, especially when a company is superb at what it does. But the corporate landscape is littered with examples of great companies that “stuck to their knitting” with serious consequences. How many of us still walk around with a Walkman or purchase books from a bricks-and-mortar bookseller? In the new paradigm, “disruptive innovation,” to use Clayton Christensen’s term, is a competitive virtue. You could never accuse Steve Jobs of being stuck in the status quo. As Walter Isaacson points out, rather than resting on the success of the iPod, Jobs proceeded to cannibalize iPod sales by creating the iPhone. As he put it, “If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will.” (“The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs,” Harvard Business Review, April 2012, pp. 96-97)

3. Hold onto technical prowess. Not only must organizations become more agile; so too must their leaders. This can be a significant personal challenge. Most upwardly mobile managers have been rewarded for their superior operational and technical accomplishments, along with the leadership skills to motivate others. But, the higher they climb, the less need they have for these skills and the more important it is to think strategically. Success hinges on the ability to look ahead: to anticipate those S-curves and potential problems, see clearly where the next round of competitive advantage lies, analyze future threats and opportunities—and then act. Those leaders who retreat to their technical comfort zone and remain tactical risk getting swept away.

4. Don’t grow a strong, talented team. We laid out the case for high-performance, horizontal teams in Great Business Teams: Cracking the Code for Standout Performance. Enough said, except to add that as leaders face the three “Cs”—ever-growing change, complexity, and competition—they need to increase their bandwidth. Those that leverage the brainpower of their teams and free up team members to gather strategic customer and market intelligence and then make decisions are likely to have greater staying power.

5. Role-model dysfunctionality. Top management teams have great gravitational pull on their organizations. They are the ultimate cue givers. Managers and employees down the line are not moved by the rhetoric of mission statements and rah-rah pronouncements. They absorb the values tacitly expressed by the senior team’s behavior. Show me an organization that has widespread underground behavior, silo thinking, triangulation, conflict avoidance, and the like, and I’ll show you a top team that is the prime offender. Role-model horizontal, high-performance behavior and “they”—and success—will follow.

6. Don’t hold people accountable. One of the deadliest causes of leadership failure is unwillingness to hold people accountable for results. It’s easy to let people off the hook and play “let’s get along.” But this creates a culture of avoidance and even failure. In the high-performance, horizontal model, the ladder of accountability begins at the bottom rung, where individuals are accountable for their own performance, then proceeds to individuals being accountable for direct reports, for peers, for their leader’s success, and finally for the success of their organization. At each rung, there is high value placed on “we want to win.”  There is built-in accountability, which creates a culture of success.

7. Don’t bother building strong interpersonal relationships. In today’s global and matrixed enterprises, the “soft” skills matter as much as “hard” competencies, such as financial acumen, planning, and decision making. Much of a leader’s success hinges on the ability to produce results through people over whom he or she has no direct authority. It takes strong interpersonal skills to do so, and this, in turn, requires strong influencing skills—the ability to turn your agenda into “theirs” by gaining the commitment of others rather than forcing compliance. We’re not talking here about teddy bears and lollipops. It takes a great shrewdness or, in today’s parlance, high E.Q., to size up key colleagues and then determine the best strategy for ensuring success. How else can today’s leaders marshal organizational support to get things done?

Leaders who are in danger of becoming unsuccessful need to act fast. Engage a trusted advisor, whether from inside or outside the company. Consider gathering a circle of support consisting of colleagues who are at stake for your success. Make sure they ask you the tough questions: How was your situation created? What role did you play? What could you have done differently? How do you incorporate the lessons learned into a plan for the future? 

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