Bankruptcies, accounting fraud, sexual harassment charges, bribery, inaccurate expense reports, overly leveraged financial institutions . . . all leading to the demise of high profile Chief Executive Officers; and, in some cases, to the companies over which they presided. In most of the cases the CEOs had pedigree educations, have been enormously talented, accomplished, and successful businesspeople – and have tirelessly worked their way to the corner office. What on earth goes wrong?
In a seminar I teach at the Business Leadership Center of the Cox School of Business at SMU about the roles and characteristics of successful CEO’s, I always ask the students why they want to be a CEO. Invariably, they answer using these words: power, authority, wealth, independence, dominance, and assorted similar descriptive phrases. The students provide both a visceral response and a keen insight into the nature of the dilemma with which we are faced. These are all self directed words, and they can be powerful motivators in seeking ones goals. Obviously, an individual must be highly self-motivated to achieve pre-eminence in any endeavor.
Malcolm Gladwell tells us in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, an individual must practice a minimum of 10,000 hours in order to master a particular endeavor like playing hockey, using a computer, or singing opera.
Alan Couzens trains athletes and developed a chart to measure physical fitness. It shows the number of hours practiced against the improvement in VO2 scores, the body’s capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise, which is a measure of physical fitness. The chart says an individual with average inherited capabilities can reach world class physical fitness after close to 8,000 hours of practice and can improve another 6 percent by practicing an additional 2,000 hours.
Let’s assume that Gladwell is right and Couzens’ chart is accurate. Let’s also make the assumption “Gladwell’s Law” applies to any field of human endeavor, including becoming a CEO. To become a CEO, an individual must master the fundamentals, which means one must become expert in the functional disciplines of business: marketing, sales, human resources, finance, strategy, operations, and business law at a minimum. Let’s also say one must become an expert in at least one industry. Here’s the math:
It’s going to take the average individual 22 years to master the subject matter required to become a CEO. One may say, “Well, the CEO is not an average individual,” and I’m likely to agree. I, however, have not included some other areas of expertise that are required, such as communication, negotiating, and computer skills. Neither have I given our CEO much of a life outside work. There’s 12 hours worked each day, six days a week for 22 years with but a scant two weeks of vacation each year – without that, it would have taken longer to attain the goal. So let’s just agree on a range of from 20 to 25 years.
Now remember, that’s just to master the subject matter, and that is the beginning of the fatal flaw. That fledgling CEO has spent most, if not all, of their time mastering the subject matter required to occupy the position. In addition, in order to expend the energy, muster the dedication, and make the sacrifices necessary to attain this level of accomplishment has, in most cases, been inwardly directed; that is, self-motivated. If outwardly directed, the efforts would have been for the benefit of spouse and family. Finally, throughout the years the CEO has learned to have a sense of urgency, be self reliant, and, above all, must at least appear to be exceedingly self-confident. No doubts here.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the entire landscape changes when becoming a CEO. To retain the position, a CEO can no longer be inwardly directed and must now be outwardly directed. When once the efforts were for the benefit of family and self, they now must be for the benefit of others: customers, co-workers, shareholders, and vendors. When once the individual and family came first, now others must come first. When once always wanting the spotlight, now the CEO must want the spotlight always directed at others. I tell my students something that seems to resonate with them and epitomizes the transition that must take place. A CEO gets there by talking and stays there by listening.
This change in perspective is enormous. What once were virtues are now vices. Moreover, these vices are easily detected – here’s one small example. That sense of urgency that has served so well can turn into impatience. Showing impatience with an individual who may be poorly presenting a position means not becoming exasperated and barking, “What’s your point?” Why not? That employee has to go back to the office and work even harder to develop their position. It may mean delivery in three days for what might reasonably take three weeks.
The behaviors required for success in the position are foreign to the newly minted CEO. Humility, patience, listening, promoting others, and accolade resisting are all qualities and skills the new CEO has not learned, and there are not three years or 10,000 hours to master them either. Moreover, the outward manifestations of these behaviors are easily detectable by others but not so easily discernible by the new CEO. In short, the CEOs who go astray are most often protagonists in stories reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. They commit wrongful acts or moral lapses in ignorance of the nature and effect of their actions, which is the starting point of a causally connected train of events ending in disaster.
Jerry Dilettuso is the President North America for UCROO, an online app for university communities. Jerry is a former resident of Dallas, and was a partner at Newport Board Group when he contributed this article.
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