The Problem with Know-It-All Managers

I have a problem with managers who seem to have all the answers. Maybe they get tired of me asking so many questions, but still. There's an old expression, "Those who think they know everything are annoying to those of us who do." Sure, it's funny, but if you move the period to just after the word "annoying," it's also true.

Unfortunately, managers who think they know everything aren't just annoying. They're also bad managers, bad for the organization, and bad for business.

I know a CEO who used to ask lots of questions. In fact, he was demanding about it. He wouldn't just ask tough questions, he'd ask them, then he'd keep bugging you until you came up with answers. And he'd never forget, so neither did you. In that sense, he created a great environment that was challenging and fostered accountability.

Then one day it happened. He made it. He made it bigtime. We're talking beaucoup bucks. And just like that, he stopped asking questions. All of a sudden - for whatever reason - he had all the answers.

Now, there are all kinds of management and organizational problems with that. For one thing, the "accountability" and "challenging" environment goes right out the window.

But having all the answers also slams the door on debate and perspective, the cornerstones of objective reasoning and effective decision-making. That's got to be career limiting -- and business limiting, too.
Come to think of it, that's what bugs me about CEOs who are overly optimistic and put a positive spin on everything. Sure, I like optimism as much as the next guy. And I guess there are worse things than seeing the silver lining in every cloud and being able to put a positive spin on a negative story.

But those kinds of executives always leave me wondering if they base decisions on that sort of rose-colored perspective. And if they don't, then where do they draw the line? I mean, how do you know when they're being real and when they're just spinning optimism?

For example, every time Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz - and Scott McNealy before him - outlined the company's latest restructuring plan, you'd think everything was going to be fine. But everything wasn't fine. Sun has had at least 9 restructuring plans as it went steadily down the tubes for years and years. The only ray of hope is that the EU will finally let Oracle buy the struggling company.

Likewise, if you listened to Sony chief executive Howard Stringer outline his turnaround plan for the struggling media and electronics giant a couple of weeks ago, you'd swear he had a master plan that would fix everything. "This is a new Sony. The new team here is as digitally connected as our devices," he said. "Our work is already bearing fruit." You'd never know that Sony is expected to report its second consecutive $1 billion loss year.

The message here is twofold: First, steer clear of managers, executives, and business leaders who seem to have all the answers. Second, if you're one of those people, you might want to check out Leadership Lesson: Never Make It About You and remember the age-old phrase, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."

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