Treating the Dysfunctional CEO

When I went away to college, my father was home alone.  He didn’t have many close friends and spent most of his time reading and in front of the TV.  As my visits stretched from every few months to a couple times a year, I began to notice him developing some strange behaviors.  He had always been a bit of a creature of habit, but these routines developed into Groundhog Day rituals over time.  Same cup, same spoon, same plate—always arranged in the exact same way.  Every day of the week had its own meal, prepared exactly the same way at the same time.  We had a great relationship and when I’d visit, I was constantly calling him on it: “Dude, you’re turning into Howard Hughes!”

I also took great pleasure in derailing his procedures: I hid his special cereal spoon one morning and remember hearing him slowly come unglued as he banged around the kitchen. He eventually shouted out, “Hey, where’s my spoon?!” I choked back the laughter and replied, “Your spoon? I don’t know but there’s a whole drawer full of them in there!”  In spite of his idiosyncrasies, he was remarkably self-reflective and would actually change his behavior.  My aunt commented, “You should visit more often, he actually started wearing clothes that matched for a change…”

I’ve come to believe that the main driver of my dad’s eccentricities was a lack of feedback.  There was nobody close enough to him that was willing to call out the strange behavior.  So, left to his own devices, it just got progressively worse.

This dynamic is especially relevant to CEOs.  Most companies don’t have a good mechanism to give the CEO real, honest feedback.  Sometimes the board gives feedback, but it’s often based on impressions at board meetings, perceived success of management hires and overall results of the company; no specifics on how to lead and inspire people, conduct better meetings, or deal with conflicts, to name a few.

Some of the most dysfunctional organizations I’ve observed have evolved from dealing with a leader’s idiosyncrasies: He’s stereotypically passive aggressive, erratic, a bully, or plays favorites.  Whatever the weird behavior, it drives massive turmoil as the company adapts a workaround to the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.  The frequent resolution is the CEO is fired because dysfunctional organizations underperform their peers and the board finally reacts.  The sad fact is that the vast majority of these CEOs are likely great leaders who had poor role models and lacked frequent, candid feedback to know how to change.

After experimenting with a number of different approaches, I believe there’s an unassuming process to solicit feedback for just about any leader:

  • Present it as a private “for your eyes only” gift that has no other purpose than to make the recipient a better leader.  It has to be separate from any other evaluation for advancement or compensation.
  • The interviews should be conducted and delivered by a truly independent and unusually competent third-party—typically an external consultant.
  • A critical mass of 360-degree feedback should be gathered from 10 to 20 different people. For a CEO: the entire board, direct reports, customers, partners, admins—the more the better.
  • The interviewees need to be prepped as follows: 1) this is to make the recipient a better leader, not for compensation evaluation purposes; and 2) everything is kept extremely confidential (e.g. quotes are anonymized and intermingled with a critical mass of other interviewees).
  • The questions are short and simple: What are the leader’s three greatest strengths?  Three biggest areas for improvement?
  • The interviewer must create a comfortable, trusting environment and press hard for examples.  Ideally, he should read back the quotes to the interviewee to ensure clarity and anonymity.
  • The feedback should then be summarized and the raw quotes attached as backup and presented to the leader.

Feedback for leaders is often nuanced and difficult to deliver.  That said, hearing you are passive aggressive from 10 different people described 10 different ways becomes hard to ignore.  And this shouldn’t be a one-time thing.  It’s important for a leader to hear about his blind spots on a regular basis so working on them is periodically top of mind.  For example, I’m not a particularly good listener.  I don’t like sweating the details and I’m pretty disorganized.  To be a better leader, I need to stay on top of these shortcomings and being reminded really helps.

Lastly, the leverage from feedback can be powerful: not only can it grind off a leader’s ingrained dysfunctional behavior, but it can also convince him of the value of a strong feedback process for the entire organization.