What To Do When The Executive Has No Clothes

Last Updated May 7, 2010 7:17 PM EDT

Executives with supersized egos and hotheaded tempers have reached epidemic proportions in the corporate world. What's more, they all seem to have a certain characteristic in common; they don't suffer fools gladly.

Now, fools annoy me as much as the next guy. But have you ever tried to tell one of those big-ego executives - you know, the ones who don't suffer fools gladly - that one of their brilliant ideas isn't so brilliant. Or that they're full of BS or breathing their own fumes? Didn't go over too well, did it?

You see, those same execs are deathly afraid that their carefully cultivated self-image of perfection will be shattered, which is why they act out on fools to begin with. In shrink speak it's called transference, which in this case means taking one's own feelings of inferiority and guilt out on another.
Now, given a choice, most of us would rather forgo the entire experience, rather than declare that the emperor (executive) has no clothes. Not surprisingly, that's usually what happens. And that's the real problem. When an executive gets too big for his britches and cuts off healthy debate and conflict, that's bad news for the company.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about your average "it was a good idea at the time but didn't turn out so well." If you don't wipe out from time-to-time, you're not taking enough risks. I'm talking about ideas that are so obviously dumb that half the company is wondering what the exec was smoking when he came up with it but nobody's willing to speak up.

Here are a few examples of that sort of thing, off the top of my head:

  1. Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo sitting out the smartphone market and giving Apple, Research In Motion, and Google a three-year head start.
  2. Intel throwing away billions in a futile attempt to penetrate the communications market.
  3. Dell's two high-profile forays into the crowded and iPod-dominated MP3 market.
  4. Motorola trying to milk the RAZR for I don't know how many years.
  5. And my favorite, do you think anyone will ever tell Sprint CEO Dan Hesse that he bombs in those boring company ads?
I can go on and on, but the point is this. You and I can only talk about the importance of open debate and conflict in the management ranks. We can only talk about how toxic yes-men, sugar-coating the truth, and CYA mentality is to corporations. At some point, folks have to grow a pair and speak up. And that means you:
  • Board directors. How long are you going to hide behind a veil of independence and diplomacy while your CEOs make one ludicrously dumb decision after another and take their companies down the tubes? If your fiduciary duty to investors isn't enough to motivate you, you don't deserve a seat at the table. Step down.
  • CEOs. You're not children, so stop acting like them. Being appointed CEO doesn't make you a god and it's not an end onto itself. Being appointed CEO is an awesome and extraordinary responsibility to thousands of shareholders and employees. If the company falters on your watch, you failed. Period.
  • Executives. You're where you are because you're supposed to be the best of the best. The most important contribution you can make to the company, besides successfully managing your own responsibility, is to stand up to your boss and peers. And in real time, not when it's too late.
  • Everyone else. Life is too short to live it in fear. And the only regret harder to live with than never making a difference is knowing you had the chance and didn't take it. Besides, executives, even dysfunctional ones, do respect employees with the guts to speak their minds. They may not act that way; but they do.
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