While preparing for my speech on “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons from Past CEOs’ Mistakes,” I realized that it was worth sharing a few of the biggest faux pas CEOs make along with a few of my more colorful anecdotes.
What follows are the 5 things CEOs in crisis do that you want to avoid as the leader of your company or organization.
1. They Act Like Deer in the Headlights
In crisis situations, it’s amazing how many CEOs and company leaders act like deer in the headlights. They just freeze up and wait for the impending SMACK!
I was working with a guy whose company had entered a crisis. In the midst of this crisis, his very time-sensitive catalog that directly generates 80% of his 65 million dollar annual revenue within 90 days had to go out. It was hours before the catalogs had to be postmarked and mailed, but in order for this to happen we had to have $10,000 – immediately. In a cash crisis, this guy, worth a few million, wouldn’t take $10,000 out of his own pocket to pay the postage. If anything went wrong, he was personally guaranteed on 40 million dollars. He would have been totally wiped out had he defaulted, and all he had to do was personally put up $10,000.
I was brought in within hours of the deadline and convinced him to put up the cash. This was the first of many critical decisions amongst endemic problems, but thankfully, this incident established trust and a working relationship that led to a successful restructuring plan.
2. They’re Only as Smart as the Last person They Talked to
Many CEOs (and people for that matter) are only as smart as the last person they talked to – especially in a crisis. They cease being able to think for themselves, whether out of the hope of being able to pass the buck or because anything and everything sounds better than what they’re doing.
At a non-profit educational institution, the president was kicked out of office for various well-deserved reasons, resulting in a crisis of leadership, and the interim president kept changing the restructuring plan with every person to whom he spoke. He’d announce firings and closings almost daily, and then backtrack when someone objected, subsequently calling those he’d fired to tell them to disregard the two week notice they’d received. Back and forth he’d go like this, only spouting the last thing someone else said to him.
The only smart thing he did without changing his mind was hire me – and I fired him six weeks later. In restructuring, you generally get one plan to move forward with – it’s a house of cards and you don’t want it to fall from a lot of movement. Keep your plan conservative and reasonable, and don’t be as smart as the last guy you talked to.
3. They Can’t Check Their Egos at the Door to Admit Mistakes
The president at an electronics parts manufacturer found some cost accounting discrepancies that meant he was selling products under cost. Though he didn’t tell the bank, perhaps thinking that his Ivy League Ph.D.s would save him, the truth emerged a year later when his cash flow continued to deteriorate until the bank noticed. If he’d set his ego aside, spoken to the bank and brought in a professional early, he’d still be president, but the bank gave him the boot and brought me in. He lost everything because his ego got in the way.
Queue the Dragon Lady of El Paso: his wife and executive VP. Upon arrival, my first goal was to build loyalty and get buy in, and an opportunity dropped into my lap. The assistant immediately asked for twenty bucks to buy coffee and toilet paper. “Huh?” I asked. Apparently, in the interest of the budget, the company was rationing coffee and toilet paper. The Dragon Lady was losing millions on her left side while hoping to limit enough toilet paper and coffee for 60 people on her right side to balance out the equation. I gave the assistant $100 and told her to buy the biggest can of coffee and pack of toilet paper she could find, telling the other employees, “compliments of Lee.” From then on, they loved me. I had full buy-in, no one lost his job and we sold the company in full six months later.
4. They Don’t Depend on Their Key Subordinates
I hire people who are smarter than I am. I have no problem with people making more money than I do or being smarter. I view myself as a catalyst for positive change. However, I was brought into a company at which the CEO did not share this sentiment.
The CEO had created a generous sales commission structure, and the Sales Manager did a great job for the company, meeting and exceeding goals. Resultantly, he made twice as much as the CEO in his first year on the job. When the board refused to give the CEO a raise to exceed the Sales Manager’s salary, the CEO attempted to lower the sales team’s commission structure, thereby dis-incentivizing them, even though they had been very successful on behalf of the company.
After the CEO forced a changed pay structure, the Sales Manager quit and went to work for a competitor. The board of directors found out and fired the CEO. While this echoes the sentiment of the ego problem, it also highlights the issue that CEOs fail to utilize good talent and rely on key subordinates.
5. They Don’t Get Buy-In
Buy-in is so important, and the CEO who isn’t getting it is looking for trouble because nothing goes forward for long without buy-in. At WYNCOM the CEO didn’t want any bad news, and he never wanted to hear what anybody had to say. He therefore didn’t have 100% of his team’s focus to make his wishes a reality. Subsequently, he lost 8 million dollars in 2 years.
As a CEO it’s important to know which way you want to go, and though a business is no voting democracy, you shouldn’t be handing down dictates from on high either. Have a conversation with your people, and let them tell you what they think. Even if they disagree and you still go the way you want to go, you can incorporate their feedback and by doing so, get their buy-in and support.
All I did when I became CEO of WYNCOM was act as a catalyst and seek others’ input, Thus, we went from an EBITDA of negative four million to positive four million in 12 months. In fact, we saved a half million dollars in postage just because I listened to someone.