We often ascribe magical powers to individual executives, seeing them as the embodiment of progress. If they just put their mind to it, they can wake up complacent companies, rejuvenate aging innovators, recapture market dominance, and cure baldness.

Sometime they can. Often they can’t. No matter how hard Paul Ottelini tried, he could not revive Intel, or break through its PC mentality. Steve Ballmer was not able to change Microsoft from a dominant player in desktops and laptops to a dominant player in mobile. Carly Fiona did not rescue HP from decline. Eddie Lampert did nothing for Sears/Kmart. We like to believe in heroes and heroines. Disney has this effect on us. But in reality they often work within environments, internal and external, that shape outcomes more than the heroes and heroines themselves.

General Motors has a new chief, Mary Barra.

Read More →

“You don’t have to be a psychopath to work here, but it helps.”

Have you suspected your CEO is a psychopath? How about the president? How about the gover­nor of a state that borders Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Atlantic? (Hint: it rhymes with “Boo Jersey.”)

It won’t do you any good to go partisan on me; they probably are psychopaths. Don’t blame me. Blame science. Arthur Fallon, a neuroscientist and author of The Psychopath Inside, recently appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN with the amazing discovery that most successful, famous people, in politics and business, score relatively high on a psychopathy spectrum.

When you think of psychopaths you probably think of serial killers, but only some psychopaths are criminals. Psychopathy is a lack of activity, visible on scans, in the areas in the brain responsible for emotional empathy.  It shows up as a cluster of traits including ruthlessness, fearlessness, narcissism, charm, charisma, impulsivity, persuasiveness, manipulation, and a lack of conscience. Fallon describes those traits as “part of leadership skills.” Now can you start seeing your CEO and it’s-all-about-me politicians (but I am redundant) fitting that profile?

Read More →

Clear expectations inform and motivate. In competition they do more: they signal. That’s why people skilled at competing set expectations deliberately and strategically. Expectations declare boundaries to competitors: “this is my territory, stay away or we battle.” Expectations announce capabilities to customers: “this is what we will do for you.”

There are two ways to set expectations: unconditionally or conditionally. An unconditional expectation is a promise. A conditional expectation depends on something else. The unconditional type looks like this: “You will be able to keep your doctor.” The conditional type looks like this: “If enough young people sign up and pay for insurance then policies will be cheaper than they would be otherwise.” (On the concept of “otherwise,” see my co-editor’s essay “Success Is In a Word.”).

Conditional expectations are cautious and realistic. They spell out circumstances under which something may or may not happen. Given the no-place-to-hide ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter they are also wise. But they are far from exciting. In the age of millions of MBAs in marketing, apparently that is a no-no. We sacrifice the lesser good, wisdom, for the greater, hype! (That’s why I used an exclamation point instead of a period!)

Read More →

My co-editor Ben Gilad recently published a terrific essay called The Neurotic Index. I am happy to provide other entries in this reference series. If companies continue to misbehave we will compile their foibles into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Corporate Disorders in 2014.

Denial Disorder

Description: Denial isn’t disagreement. This is disagreement: you say “we are headed for disas­ter!” and I say “no we aren’t.” This is denial: you say “we are headed for disaster!” and I say “did you watch the 49ers game on Sunday?”

Symptom: We can’t get anything done because there’s nothing to be done.

Measurement: Ask your colleagues if they think the company is in denial. Total up the “yes” votes; they acknowledge the problem. Also total up the “no” votes; they demonstrate the problem.

Important note! Most sufferers dispute the diagnosis. Discard any evidence that they are right.

Read More →

The dictionary defines neurotic behavior as “overanxious.” Woody Allen made this behavior popular in his movies, almost loveable.

We all know neurotic people. Maybe even ourselves, depending on subject matter.

I think companies can exhibit neurotic behavior too. I would not bother to document this statement if it did not relate to the skill of competing. In this piece I also offer a new tool called the Neurotic Index, or NIX. Use it to assess how your organization’s neurotic behavior affects its skill at competing. Don’t get neurotic about it, though.

I was inspired to create the NIX by a personal experience with a Fortune 500 company. I’ve dealt with Fortune 500 companies my entire professional life, so I’m used to a certain level of neurosis. Mid-level managers are often subject to unpredictable demands from the top level, which turns the mid-level neurotic from time to time. But this was different.

Read More →