As I See It: Failure Is Not Just For Executives Anymore
February 6, 2012 Victor Rozek
If you want to become successful, every few years someone will write a book telling you how. Just follow these three steps, develop these seven habits, add stock options and voila, you too can be a screaming success. Or, if that doesn’t work, it helps to have the good fortune to be born to rich, connected parents.
Success is all well and good, but given the number of “successes” who were once thought to be shining stars in the corporate firmament but turned out to be cheap fireworks instead, it’s high time someone paid homage to the qualities that promote monumental failure. Well, someone did.
His name is Sydney Finkelstein, and he’s a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He closely examined the behavior of the nogoodniks that managed companies like Tyco and Enron, et al, and discovered they shared seven characteristics that hastened their dazzling downfalls. He called them The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives.
But why limit it to executives? The same behaviors apply in different contexts to ambitious keyboard jockeys and driven IT managers. To be honest, while reading the list I realized I had, at one time or another, dabbled in all of these habits–albeit to a lesser degree than Finkelstein’s fallen CEOs. (Which may explain some things I’d rather not think about.)
Happily, every vice has a corresponding virtue. So if, like me, you see yourself in any of Finkelstein’s seven habits, don’t wait until success comes crashing down around your head before making a change.
Habit #1: They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environment.
Finkelstein calls it “the illusion of personal pre-eminence.” The Greeks called it hubris, and every tragedian described it as central to the downfall of otherwise great men. With rare exceptions, the IT managers I’ve known cling to the illusion of dominance and control. The higher the position, the greater the illusion. But employees can also feel proprietary about their individual domains. Maintaining dominance, however, is like trying to hold multiple beach balls under water. You may succeed for a while, but eventually they will escape your grasp.
Having said that, there is a difference between establishing process control to minimize error (that is, how do we move software from development into production), and believing that maintaining control exempts you from error. In the bigger picture, chance and circumstance often contribute significantly to success. Or, like an unexpected medical diagnosis, chance can also herald a swift decline. The antidote to hubris is humility, regrettably not so popular with the dominance-obsessed crowd.
Habit #2: They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation’s interests.
“Being the CEO of a sizable corporation today,” says Finkelstein, “is probably the closest thing to being king of your own country, and that’s a dangerous title to assume.” While the average IT professional doesn’t have to worry about donning the crown any time soon, a good many people develop workaholic tendencies that blur the line between identity and job. In our culture, it’s the first question we ask a stranger: “What do you do?” And based on their reply, judgments are made, as if jobs were the sole indicators of value. Commitment to a job or a company is a virtue, but when it crosses the line to obsession, the essence of the individual is sacrificed to the task. In extreme cases, they fuse and become one and the same. The antidote to fusion is differentiation, a particularly daunting task for people who have lost their job and are unable to find another. The accompanying loss of identity can be debilitating. Differentiation acknowledges that we are not our jobs and have value independent of what we do.
Habit #3: They think they have all the answers.
Life will cure you of that belief. Arrogance and self-delusion tend to be self-canceling. Confidence is good, but the trap is thinking you always know better than your peers. The person who is never uncertain automatically dismisses a wealth of outside experience and knowledge, and often fails to understand–or care–about the consequences of his decisions. For managers, the results range from employee skepticism to complete loss of credibility. For the know-it-all employee, the likely upshot is being intensely disliked. In either case, the antidote is curiosity. The willingness to question conclusions and beliefs is perhaps the surest path to wisdom.
Habit #4: They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them.
The average IT manager may not be able to eliminate all dissenting viewpoints, but he can ignore them. But, as a manager, if you stifle dissent it goes underground. Disgruntled employees know they can appear cooperative while dragging their feet just long enough to get a manager fired. The antidote is to ask for and embrace feedback. Often, people don’t need to be right, they just need to be listened to. And without feedback, there is no way to fully understand your impact on others or to improve your performance. Asking for feedback is an act of vulnerability, but one which will garner the respect of employees and peers. For their part, employees cannot eliminate contrary peers, but they can withdraw from people who do not share their opinions. Withdrawal, however, precedes isolation, which seldom serves career ambitions.
Habit #5: They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image.
For our purposes, this translates to being obsessed with self-image. Image, of course, has value, until it begins to trump substance. The question becomes: how far will you go to maintain your image? Or, to put it another way, how little of your true self will you allow people to see? The price is two-fold. First, if you project a false image you never feel truly seen. Interactions are empty, and no matter what kind things people may say about you, they will not be believed because the compliments are given to a persona. Second, protecting the image can become a full-time job. Performance suffers when you’re busy trying to look busy, acting the part rather than living it. The antidote is authenticity, the journey of a lifetime, comprised of thousands of daily steps called choice.
Habit #6: They underestimate obstacles.
Confidence is an attractive and necessary quality until it feeds on itself and becomes infallibility. Over-confident people tend to be reckless and ill prepared. It’s the disease of dead mountaineers and managers or employees who promise too much too soon. It’s best to promise less but deliver more. True confidence is not believing you can conquer every obstacle. That’s not only impossible, but exhausting. Rather, as Winston Churchill put it, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” The antidote is careful and thorough preparation, and recognizing that sometimes the path you have chosen is less traveled for good reason.
Habit #7: They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past.
There’s no shame in finding something that works and riding that horse until it dies. But once the horse is dead, get off. Followers will quickly lose enthusiasm if you’re sitting on a dead horse, kicking and yelling “Charge!” Failure is not fatal, but failure to change often is. The antidote is to periodically re-examine not only what doesn’t work, but also what does.
We seem to have an inverted relationship to success and failure. At their highest levels, failure is richly rewarded, and success is destructively ruthless. John Steinbeck captured the disconnect. “The things we admire in men,” he said, “kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
Maybe Oscar Wilde was right: “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.”