At HP, Deference May Have Led to Deviance
Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 9, 2010 4:20 PM
Mark Hurd was brought in to HP in 2005 not only to turn around the company but also to set a more professional tone in the executive suite. By all accounts, he succeeded, through an unrelenting focus on the numbers, painful cost cutting, aggressive acquisitions, and operational discipline. He was at the pinnacle of success and about to sign a new contract worth at least $100 million. And then he threw it all away, because, by his own admission, he "did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP..."
There is no way to look into the minds and souls of Mark Hurd and others who have engaged in self-destructive behaviors before him, and know for sure what motivates such deviance. It is even likely that on a conscious level they don't know themselves. A strong possibility, however, is that they started to believe in their own press clippings. Being a senior executive—and especially a CEO—is a heady thing. People defer to you and treat you like corporate royalty. You have an entourage that takes care of mundane tasks, writers that prepare your speeches and presentations, and a PR department that shapes your internal and external image. In the midst of this "heroic executive" culture, it's easy to unconsciously think that you can do whatever you want to do, particularly in seemingly minor or personal matters.
Amplifying this sense of power is a lack of honest feedback and non-deferential dialogue. It's not that CEOs, senior executives, and many managers have no one to talk to—many have no one to talk back to them. At the same time, many senior executives have no one to share doubts and underlying anxieties. They don't want to appear weak or uncertain with their own people, which might, in their minds, undermine their authority or leadership. So in the absence of intellectual pushback and emotional empathy, senior people either lose perspective on what's appropriate, or find external relationships that fulfill their needs but may not be appropriate.
None of this excuses the bad behaviors of executives. But it does suggest that all of us may need to tone down the excessive deference that creates the "heroic executive" culture. From the manager's side, this means being more open to admitting mistakes and uncertainty, and encouraging real give-and-take with subordinates and colleagues. If this is difficult to do with your own team or peers, then find a consultant or coach from inside or outside the organization who is not cowed by your status and can be a confidential listener and effective devil's advocate. For people who report to an executive or are part of an executive team, it means being more courageous in challenging your boss and your peers.
Managers and executives, no matter what their level, are flawed human beings with strengths and weaknesses, just like anybody else. When they forget this fact—or we help them forget it—we're in danger of fostering the kind of behavior that toppled Mark Hurd.
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