President and CEO Story

There’s a theory I have learned to believe which says that “all our actions come from positive intention”.

This executive had come from a stellar corporate environment. He initially worked many years for one of the most prestigious high tech firms in the world and built a successful track record in sales and marketing. He moved rapidly upward and was later hired to head up national sales for one the fastest growing and most innovative young technical companies at that time. After a company reorganization he had offers all over the country, but chose not to move this time, and selected a position in a different industry with a much smaller company, as President and CEO.

The “presenting issue”: he felt his senior staff and executive committee had serious communication problems. After conducting intake sessions, assessments, and profiling the targeted group, the following findings emerged:

The leadership style of the CEO was based primarily on high control, and catching people doing things wrong, in his view, and criticizing them strongly in front of their colleagues regularly at their weekly staff meetings. The pattern rotated and almost everyone at some time was in the hot seat.

The result was “poor communications”, slow decision making by the CEO, and lower risk taking by the employees, which impacted the creativity. People wouldn’t speak out for fear of public criticism, and those who had the courage to do so were quickly leveled and embarrassed. Projects lagged, sales slowed, new product ideas waned, and morale crashed.

What was the “positive intention” of the CEO in shoveling out heaps of public criticism? I asked him directly. Without hesitation he quickly explained that some of this senior executive team were very young, and he thought they would “learn from this feedback given to all”.

Unfortunately what they actually learned was: to not speak out, to not take risks; a result was lower creativity, lower confidence, productivity and lower morale.

This story does not have a happy ending because the CEO was in complete denial about the negative impact of his behavior. He was unwilling to shift his own awareness and behavior, and wanted everyone else to change. “Blamestorming” became his leadership style, instead of collaborative brainstorming. Even when presented with clear data, either a blindspot, or his own arrogance, derailed him, and not the team. Arrogance is one of the top ten derailers, along with lack of self- knowledge, and poor listening skills. The Board ultimately replaced him.

A key learning point: always get buy-in from the senior leader engaging the coaching or consulting, that they are part of the team and are willing to look at their issues and the impact of their issues on the situation. Determine their willingness to participate in coaching and personal change.