In a recent edition of Leadership Excellence, Mark Murphy, chairman and CEO of Leadership IQ and co-author of Leading on the Edge of Chaos, reports on a study of that came up with five top reasons why CEOs get fired. We don’t have to be CEOs to benefit from his conclusions, which we present here with out own comments.
1. Mismanaging change — Some organizations wait for their external environments to change them or force them to change. Other organizations are more proactive about planning to change before they’re forced to do it. Either way, once the change is underway, CEOs are expected to execute. That requires an intimate knowledge of the organization’s vision, mission, resources, personnel, processes and constituencies. Leaders who let themselves get too detached from any these “vitals” is setting himself or herself up for failure.
2. Ignoring customers or clients — Every organization has a purpose, and every purpose has some sort of service at its core, even if that service is providing a product. Boards want to know that their CEOs know the organization’s clientele, their needs and related trends. Those that don’t are at risk.
3. Tolerating low performers — When CEOs let poor performers linger without improvement or discipline, it undermines the CEO’s credibility and makes it virtually impossible for the CEO to hold others accountable. This is not a mandate for culling the payroll at every chance. If anything, it’s a mandate for organizations to make the development of their people a part of their very purpose. A focus on developing people pays dividends in many ways in both good times and bad. Neglect this aspect of organizational excellence and a lot of hard, painful choices are inevitable. Jesus would remind us that love is the one force that can obtain lasting change for the better in people. Learning how to love our colleagues and charges at work is not an easy task, but the rewards are incredible.
4. Denying reality — People, even powerful governing boards, can handle bad news and the major changes required to fix the source of that news. In fact, when CEOs don’t acknowledge problems, it presents boards and followers with only a few options:
- The CEO doesn’t know — it’s a matter of ignorance;
- The CEO doesn’t care — it’s a matter of indifference;
- The CEO is hiding things from us — it’s a matter of dishonesty.
What could be worse than any of these explanations? All three. Sometimes when people don’t know which explanation is most applicable, they will assume the CEO is guilty of all three. In any event, none of these excuses builds trust, inspires sacrifice or gives the CEO any other kind of leverage to solve problems. Effective leadership begins with recognition of the reality at hand — all its assets and liabilities. Avoid that step and your next step may be out the door.
5. Too much talk, not enough action — This reason is related to the first reason. Execution matters. In the end, it’s implementation that gets measured. But here the point is made that execution is not simply about making promises to board and shouting commands to subordinates. A CEO has to model the behaviors he or she wants to see in others. Understanding how there are two parts to servant leadership — vision and implementation — and realizing that leaders must be servants when it comes to implementation will help assure that CEOs and everyone else gets to stay on the job.
Murphy says there are three lessons to take from his research:
1. The issues that get CEOs fired tend to be “soft” issues — things like developing people and modeling a servant’s approach to problem solving.
2. Lack of execution is much more damaging to a CEO’s career than lack of vision— so CEOs, as well as everyone else, should remember how important other people are to their success and security, and why nurturing them pays dividends for everyone.
3. It’s important to get out of the executive suite and into the field — but also don’t forget to loiter around other people on your team. The most important benefit of being visible is being accessible because that’s when you can pick up the bad news that leaders are often insulated from by their staffs. Bill Gates once said that one of his biggest concerns was making sure that bad news traveled up Microsoft’s chain of command fast enough and far enough that it could be effectively addressed before it could seriously harm the organization. That’s an insight everyone at every level of every organization needs to embrace.
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