Archive for January, 2012

The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives

Very smart executives, very big failures

We’ve often written on the subjects of failure and success:  while success is better, failure is a part of business and can be a great teacher, and it’s important to fail the right way.  (See here, here, herehere, here, and here for examples of our thinking.) 

The current issue of Forbes includes ”The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives” - a recap of Why Smart Executives Fail, a book published 8 years ago by Sydney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business.  Although written with larger firms in mind, the leadership lessons are relevant enough to join our collection here at NVSE.  (Abridged grafs of each Habit reproduced below, please follow the link provided for complete descriptions and warning signs for each.)

Habit # 1:  They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environment 
Shouldn’t a company try to dominate its business environment, shape the future of its markets and set the pace within them?  Yes, but there’s a catch.  Unlike successful leaders, failed leaders who never question their dominance fail to realize they are at the mercy of changing circumstances.  They vastly overestimate the extent to which they actually control events and vastly underestimate the role of chance and circumstance in their success.  CEOs who fall prey to this belief suffer from the illusion of personal pre-eminence: Like certain film directors, they see themselves as the auteurs of their companies.  As far as they’re concerned, everyone else in the company is there to execute their personal vision for the company.

Habit #2:  They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation’s interests 
We want business leaders to be completely committed to their companies, with their interests tightly aligned with those of the company.  But digging deeper, you find that failed executives weren’t identifying too little with the company, but rather too much.  Instead of treating companies as enterprises that they needed to nurture, failed leaders treated them as extensions of themselves.  And with that, a “private empire” mentality took hold.  CEOs who possess this outlook often use their companies to carry out personal ambitions.  The most slippery slope of all for these executives is their tendency to use corporate funds for personal reasons…  Being the CEO of a sizable corporation today is probably the closest thing to being king of your own country, and that’s a dangerous title to assume.

Habit #3:  They think they have all the answers 
Here’s the image of executive competence that we’ve been taught to admire for decades: a dynamic leader making a dozen decisions a minute, dealing with many crises simultaneously, and taking only seconds to size up situations that have stumped everyone else for days. The problem with this picture is that it’s a fraud. Leaders who are invariably crisp and decisive tend to settle issues so quickly they have no opportunity to grasp the ramifications.

Habit #4:  They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them
The problem with this approach is that it’s both unnecessary and destructive. CEOs don’t need to have everyone unanimously endorse their vision to have it carried out successfully.  In fact, by eliminating all dissenting and contrasting viewpoints, destructive CEOs cut themselves off from their best chance of seeing and correcting problems as they arise.  Sometimes CEOs who seek to stifle dissent only drive it underground. Once this happens, the entire organization falters…  Eventually, these CEOs had everyone on their staff completely behind them. But where they were headed was toward disaster.  And no one was left to warn them.

Habit #5: They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image 
CEOs don’t achieve a high level of media attention without devoting themselves assiduously to public relations.  When CEOs are obsessed with their image, they have little time for operational details…  As a final negative twist, when CEOs make the company’s image their top priority, they run the risk of using financial-reporting practices to promote that image.  Instead of treating their financial accounts as a control tool, they treat them as a public-relations tool. The creative accounting that was apparently practiced by such executives as Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling or Tyco’s Kozlowski is as much or more an attempt to promote the company’s image as it is to deceive the public:  In their eyes, everything that the company does is public relations.

Habit #6: They underestimate obstacles 
(W)hen CEOs become so enamored of their vision, they often overlook or underestimate the difficulty of actually getting there.  And when it turns out that the obstacles they casually waved aside are more troublesome than they anticipated, these CEO have a habit of plunging full-steam into the abyss… Once a CEO admits that he or she made the wrong call, there will always be people who say the CEO wasn’t up to the job.  These unrealistic expectations make it exceedingly hard for a CEO to pull back from any chosen course of action, which not surprisingly causes them to push that much harder.  

Habit #7: They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past 
Frequently, CEOs who fall prey to this habit owe their careers to some “defining moment,” a critical decision or policy choice that resulted in their most notable success.  It’s usually the one thing that they’re most known for and the thing that gets them all of their subsequent jobs.  The problem is that after people have had the experience of that defining moment, if they become the CEO of a large company, they allow their defining moment to define the company as well – no matter how unrealistic it has become.

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Tips for pitching a venture capitalist

Precisely two years ago we blogged about a VC Dispatch article on tips for pitching a venture capitalist.  The hook was that it would take not 1 but 7 cocktail napkins - Pitch, People, Pain, Product, Players, Projections, Proposition.

In December’s Inc.com Josh Linkner reminds that (in Silicon Valley) “only one in 300 pitches to a venture capitalist gets funded” before offering 11 insider tips.  It’s a good, if somewhat cheeky, list with a decidedly early-stage feel:  “Don’t take yourself so seriously. We sure don’t! In fact, we’ll probably make fun of you the minute you leave.”  (Ouch!)  Even so, it does include good advice, like #9:

Tell us the “hard part.” Picking out cool colors for your new digs will be fun, but easy. All businesses have a “hard part”. Getting customers to pay a premium or attracting top talent. We’ll have fun together with the easy stuff, but we want to understand from you what the biggest challenges will be. We can plan the holiday party later.

Once you’ve digested all those tips, please enjoy this demonstration of how not to pitch a venture capitalist – also available at our YouTube channel.

 

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