Surrounded as we are these days by the ruins of once-great companies, their formerly invincible leaders toppled like so many
statues of Iraqi dictators, it’s a good time to ponder the questions put forward in a new book to be published in June, Why Smart Executives Fail. What goes wrong in these cases? Once a mistake has been made, why do business leaders routinely fail to rectify it, only making things worse? How can such smart people be so stupid?
Dartmouth business school professor Sydney Finkelstein, the author, conducted the most extensive research ever on these
spectacular business disasters, and he posits four basic patterns of behavior that explain almost all of them. Note well: none of these involve innate stupidity:
1. Flawed executive mind-sets that throw off a company's perception of reality;
2. Delusional attitudes that keep this inaccurate reality in place;
3. Breakdowns in communications systems developed to handle potentially urgent information; and
4. Leadership qualities that keep a company's executives from correcting their course.
In other words, it’s an attitude problem. I remember a wonderful little story from the end of the last Bush administration. Barbara Bush was asked by a reporter what her biggest concern was about her life after leaving the White House. Not missing a beat, she replied, “Driving with George; he hasn’t driven a car for himself for
over 20 years!” While presidents of the world’s only superpower are famously isolated from “real life” (whatever that is), they aren’t the only top executives who are cut off from what’s going on below and around them. Plenty of presidents — and CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, COOs, Directors, Secretaries, and Commissioners — operate in a kind of bubble. The real problem, though, begins when they mistake the rarified air of their environment for the same air
that everyone else is breathing.
Lest we think this is only a problem for the people at the very top of an organization, let’s revisit the seminal work of Chris Argyris about “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, the title of an article he wrote more than a decade ago for the Harvard Business Review. In it, he examines why it is so difficult for people — and especially professionals, trained in critical thinking — to reflect
critically on their own performance. He describes a phenomenon called defensive reasoning about our own behavior that relies on the absence of concrete data and circular logic to justify our actions to ourselves and others. This hardens into a set of rules — a theory of action — that are so transparent to us that we don’t even realize we are using them. In fact, each of us holds an “espoused” theory of action that is rarely in sync with how we
actually behave. I use the plural first person deliberately, because this is such a universal tendency, or, as Argyris puts it, “people consistently act inconsistently.”
How to break free of this destructive pattern of thought and practice? Becoming aware of the way we think is the first, and perhaps the most important step in learning how to reason productively. You can begin to put reflective thinking into practice
by keeping a daily “Learning Log” and recording what you learned, how it may challenge your current thinking and assumptions about yourself and your world, and how you could incorporate your learning into your own approach to work and life. Equally important is to review your Learning Log every few months to see if you can spot themes or trends in your thinking and the behavior it spawns.
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According to Kiplinger's, an estimated 250,000 temporary jobs were needed to replace absent reservists during the war in Iraq. The Pentagon gives a $150 monthly bonus to military personnel deployed to the combat zone.
In a 2002 survey of 1,104 employees around the country, 86% of respondents said that their bosses thought they were great
communicators. But only 17% said their bosses actually communicated effectively.
MBA students from the top 10 of the nation's business schools prefer "career advancement and personal fulfillment at major companies," over receiving a larger paycheck, according to a nationwide study by the Center of Decision Studies at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. The survey showed only six percent of MBAs actively pursuing employment with Internet
companies compared with 24 percent two years ago.
In his just-published book Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the
Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivably Small, William Atkinson explores how, since the beginning of the industrial age, many machines have grown steadily smaller even as they have grown more powerful and complex. Now nanotechnology, based on a new science of the infinitesimally small, takes technology beyond most popular definitions of reality, to a realm of molecular machines, cell-sized computers, and other astounding possibilities: the “nanocosm.”
The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin.
What I like about it: This book explores the harmful dynamic between two great organizational archetypes, the Heroic Leader and the Passive Follower, and how it infects even the best of companies. Heroic Leaders are convinced their employees can’t handle responsibility so they take on the burden, while Passive Followers, seeing that responsibility is being taken away from them, retreat even further into inaction. The author proposes
a sensible and straightforward way to cure the cycle of over- and under-responsibility.
Executive Coach, Strategy Consultant
Principal, Bloomfield Associates
Turning to One Another: Simple
Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Margaret J. Wheatley. What I like about it: The duality of how simple it is, and at the same time the depth of thinking that the author provokes. I like the questions she asks, and her simple ground rules: “we acknowledge one another as equals; we try to stay curious about each other; we recognize that we need each other’s help to become better listeners; we slow down so we have
time to think and reflect; we remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together; we expect it to be messy at times.”
Executive Coach & Organizational Consultant
Sheryl D. Phillips Consulting
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Beth Bloomfield will be presenting a leadership workshop with coach and colleague Randy Chittum on May 19 in Chicago at a National Association of Attorneys General seminar for senior legal officials from around the state capitals. The topic: “How To Stay Alive When You’re Getting Eaten Alive!”
An article by Beth appeared recently in the quarterly AWC Matrix magazine, the online publication for members of The Association for Women in Communications. To learn more about AWC and their local chapters, check out their website.
is featured as a guest columnist in the current issue (May 2003) of Executive Summary, the newsletter of the Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association. Visit the Association’s website to learn more about their activities and upcoming events.
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see what our clients say. Don’t forget to check out our offer for a no-obligation coaching consultation.