by Michael Whitlow
Full disclosure. We work for a competitor of Go*****.com, but this is not about going one up on Go*****. It’s about CEO behavior, and how clueless some CEOs can be.
The furor on the web last week over a certain CEO’s (BobParsons.me) culling/killing an elephant, which he had helpfully videotaped and posted (see the Huffington Post coverage – caution very graphic), got me to thinking about the role of CEO in today’s socially connected world. Credit: Zookeeper
Parsons joins a long line of bold CEOs, some beloved for their brashness by their Boards of Directors. These CEOs just don’t get it sometimes when it comes to developing awareness of personal deeds and how they can drive business to or from a company. Particularly interesting in this case is the fact that this CEO is so involved in the social world via his successful business. But, from BP’s then-chief Tony Hayword’s “I’d like my life back” to former H-P CEO Fiorina prepping for a TV interview when a live microphone caught her comments on Barbara Boxer’s hair (“God, what is that hair? So yesterday!”), theses glimpses of fallibility, foibles and hints of meanness often have brought companies torrents of public ridicule.
The defenses offered by such CEOs have little effect against the millions of words of comment on their actions. In Parsons’ case, he insisted he was performing a public good, and that may be so. Many commenters who chose his side in the debate over his actions, though, indicated there were many ways he could have chosen to help Africans that didn’t include pulling the trigger.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Mr. or Ms. CEO, you don’t have to kill the elephant.
We’re not talking, of course, about the obviously criminal acts of CEOs, several of which were covered by Forbes Magazine in “The Biggest CEO Screwups of 2010.” We’re talking about the times when CEOs, much to the chagrin of their public relations advisors, decide to kill the elephant, in spite of clear reasons to avoid doing so.
And, when I say “you” don’t have to kill the elephant, I mean, like in the case of Parsons, CEOs should learn that their hobbies, love lives, treatment of their children, driving records, etc. are not separate from their business lives. As should be obvious, the fates of many employees and shareholders are thoroughly connected to the now-more-public-than-ever lives of these CEOs. CEOs have a responsibility to think about responsibility and then to act responsibly. The CEO “you” is really a much more widespread “you.”
When the associations your business enjoys begin to unravel from such actions, gravity can take hold. The Humane Society of the U.S., for instance, is looking for a new home for its 650 domain addresses, said CEO and President Wayne Pacelle in his blog – significant by anyone’s standards.
It’s tempting to talk about how to recover from such mistakes, but Ronn Torossian, 5W Public Relations has said Parsons will keep laughing (and shooting) all the way to the bank. He sees little impact to GoDaddy.
Isn’t it best, though, to give the negative publicity emanating from such events a miss? I believe it is. So, here are four items for the CEO’s checklist to avoid killing the elephant in this age of hyper-connectedness:
- It’s brand, customers, employees, shareholders – in that order. Sure, these elements are inevitably going to be intermingled in the day-to-day, but CEOs who stay out of trouble with their various publics are very clear about being true to their brands, solicitous of their customers, loyal to their employees and value-creating for their shareholders. Any act that violates this simple list is simply not appropriate. Acts that put the livelihoods of employees and shareholders at risk are particularly egregious, since customers often have other options.
- Titles and power structures inside the company mean nothing outside its walls. The CEOs least likely to find public relations trouble and rogue’s gallery status are those that rely little on title and position power. The best are always focused on how their actions will affect others rather than assuming that position or title somehow confers the ability to disregard boundaries.
- Foresight is a 360° thing. CEOs should not have tunnel vision about themselves, their subordinates or their businesses. The very fact that killing the elephant will play just fine with the Board or the CEO’s hunting buddies, either the actual or with-you-in-spirit variety, is never enough to condone action. The world around us is demanding responsibility on many levels, from environmental sensitivity to interpersonal capability, and the best CEOs always are attuned those trends that will support the growth of their enterprises. They eschew actions that have even some probability of limiting good growth.
- The ability to stare risk in the face is critical, but there’s no need to create new risks. The long list of risks that confront public companies now has a special place in the writing samples of corporate lawyers. The 10-Ks are filled with legalese about the dangers of the businesses you are asked to support with your stock purchases. The best CEOs attack known risks and anticipate others, highly likely and not, in order to take some of the variability out of their company’s performance. There is little room in the corporate world for executives who spend time creating additional risks – think Enron.
In Why CEOs Fail, David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo describe the most common characteristics of derailed top executives and how these shortcomings can be avoided:
- Arrogance—you think that you’re right, and everyone else is wrong.
- Melodrama—you need to be the center of attention.
- Volatility—you’re subject to mood swings.
- Excessive Caution—you’re afraid to make decisions.
- Habitual Distrust—you focus on the negatives.
- Aloofness —you’re disengaged and disconnected.
- Mischievousness—you believe that rules are made to be broken.
- Eccentricity—you try to be different just for the sake of it.
- Passive Resistance—what you say is not what you really believe.
- Perfectionism—you get the little things right and the big things wrong.
- Eagerness to Please—you try to win the popularity contest.
Words to live by, generally, and even though none of the recent rogues covered by Forbes could be accused of trying to win the popularity contest, they clearly violated more than one or two of the other shortcomings on this list.
By paying attention to the simple values in these four tips, CEOs can avoid killing the elephant and all of the headaches that accompany such acts.