Blog-Inspired Thoughts on CEOs, Diversity and Whiners at Tech Firms

Two weeks ago CNBC asked me to cover problems that blogs pose for companies. To prepare I read official and unofficial blogs from a number of firms, and I found them fascinating reading. Google employees, for example, seem to be as outspoken about their management’s lack of capability as anyone else on the blogs they contribute to.

I wonder how many of the executives in these firms read these blogs themselves just to see what their employees think. In the HR arena there is a dirty secret that employee surveys have never really worked and perform more of a cover-your-derriere function in most firms because employees fear reprisals, and management bias tends to sway the surveys significantly. Blogs, on the other hand, may be biased in terms of the individual contributors but they may also indicate how far off the surveys actually are.

While I was doing my research for this project I desperately wanted to respond to some of what I felt were wrong-headed views, and which were also similar to thoughts I might have shared earlier in my own career. Posting in an employee blog, though, when you aren’t actually an employee nor have your comments been invited, would be inappropriate. So, to deal with my “urge” I’m going to respond here to some of the themes that cut across several of these blogs. There are four things in particular that I thought some of these bloggers should at least think about. Those are:

  1. Things can always get worse;
  2. When firms are having endemic problems, management may not be “the” problem;
  3. Blindly promoting diversity generally leads to greater incompetence;
  4. Problem CEOs take special handling (a lot of folks would like to fire their CEOs).

Getting Worse

The blogs I read included a lot of discussion of firing troubled firms’ CEOs. Novell just kicked out its chief executive and a number of other companies have gone down that path as well.

In general, however, firing a CEO seldom results in improvement for the employees. HP’s Mark Hurd is the current exception and Carly Fiorina was more the rule. Hired gun CEOs tend to think tactically and often focus more on their own compensation than what the company needs to do. The successful ones bring in people from the outside whom they trust and whom, in turn, do the same by cycling existing staff for people they trust.

The reality is, your overwhelmed CEO may actually be the best person available to do the job. The trick is to find a way to help him, or her, to be successful at it.

Employees Need to Stand Up

You may not believe me when I say I’ve been where many who are blogging today have been. Being frustrated with management almost seemed like career centerpiece for me for awhile.

But I can tell you for sure that two things definitely don’t work. First, whining about the problems not only doesn’t make them go away, it convinces good employees to leave and work elsewhere; and personally trying to fix the problems will probably get you shot regardless of your title. Your real choices are to become part of a team that will work to analyze and fix the problems, with executive sponsorship, or to go someplace else, either inside your own firm or to another company altogether, where you can be more successful and less frustrated.

The trick is, you really have to do the analysis; it is amazing what you can find out if you look in depth into a company’s lack of performance. Often the problems that are found are quite different than what was expected. To be successful, a company needs a lot of people working together. Failure generally requires more than one person’s efforts as well.

I’ve done a lot of CEO post mortems over the years and found, as often as not, that one of the key reasons an executive fails is that his staff doesn’t give him the information he needs to do his job. In many cases this is intentional. If that information barrier can be breached, and the executive is competent, there is a good chance things can get better.

Managing Diversity

There is an awful lot of discussion on how this company or that, particularly in the technology segment, doesn’t have enough minorities in key positions. I can tell you from experience, that if tech companies fix this problem traditionally, i.e. they manage to the metric, things will certainly get worse.This is because managing to the metric forces the hiring and promotion of unqualified employees, and the more of those you have the worse things will get.

That isn’t to say that diversity should be avoided. Rather, the focus needs to be on making sure all employees are qualified for their jobs, and that may mean putting more effort into training and preparing minorities for such positions than is currently done. In the end, if due to minority status, or nepotism, a person may end up running the company some day, wouldn’t it be wise to make darned sure that by the time he or she gets there the person is the best executive he or she can be? Pointing out, for any reason, that someone is likely to fail — and then letting him or her fail — is not only stupid, it is negligent.

So often with diversity management minority individuals seem to be moved up to meet metrics with little or no effort to ensure they were qualified for the jobs they ended up with. Look at HP’s Carly Fiorina; she made it up to CEO with people skills that weren’t adequate for a first line manager. If someone had ensured that she acquired those people skills she might have been successful at HP. The blame for her failure at least partially resides with the intermediate managers who never took the time or trouble to make sure she grew to be more well rounded.

The reality is, in the United States you need to have a diverse organization; doesn’t it simply make sense to put in the effort to make sure that every employee is fully qualified for his or her job? Diversity isn’t the problem, doing a complete job as a manager is.

The Unsuccessful CEO

I’ve watched a number of good CEOs fail over the years. These weren’t unintelligent people, and most of the time they really wanted to do a great job. Some went to great lengths to study how to do the job after they got it, others sought out advice on problems and solutions. Virtually all had very successful careers before they flamed out in the CEO role.

This is because the CEO job is unique in management. Successful execs learn to manage the folks who report to them and to satisfy the expectations of an immediate, sole supervisor, and maybe a matrix of other folks. In contrast, unlike any other corporate job the CEO manages a bunch of folks who look at his or her job as their next career step and who are experts at managing perceptions. Otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are. In short, CEOs are often lied to by the most expert liars in their company. In addition, they don’t have traditional bosses and must concentrate on two groups: the investors and the customers.

These two groups are naturally at odds; the investors want the most profit, and the customers want the best value and service — both of which cut profit. Keeping both parties happy is not only difficult, it isn’t part of any other single corporate job.

This probably helps support Dr. Laurence J. Peter’s “Peter Principle.” I have a hard time disagreeing with his conclusions. To be successful a CEO has to be a clear part of a team of folks who work together well to meet the expectations of the job. This isn’t a job for an independent contributor, yet the folks that often rise fastest are the independent “Superstars” I covered in more depth a couple of weeks ago.

CEO failures are typically due to one of four things:

  • Competence: They don’t have the skills;
  • Integrity: They are more or less crooks;
  • Scope: The company is too broken;
  • Intelligence: The CEO is not getting the information he or she needs to make good decisions in a timely fashion.

As I close by tying many of these points together, as a regular employee you can really only help with the last, and even then, you probably can’t do that solo.

Getting fired for whatever reason, or working for a broken company, are both very traumatic. Helping to fix that company, or simply going where you can make a difference and then doing the complete job there, can make a huge difference in the quality of your life.

On the other hand, just whining about the problems seems to just make them appear worse. I remember a boss I once had saying “anyone can point out problems, it takes talented people to find solutions for those problems and I only employ talented people.” Running around screaming that the boat is sinking isn’t nearly as useful as keeping the boat afloat and, you have to admit, it is more fun working with folks trying to move a company forward than with folks who constantly whine.

It’s your choice. One thing I had to learn on my own was that for those who comment widely about the competence of others, maybe the mirror is the best place to look for someone who can provide solutions.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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