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Inside the Bubble: CEOs and Good Advice

  |  February 3, 2000   |  Comments

At a time of unprecedented business "velocity" and tumult, it is more important than ever that CEOs have access to good, balanced advice and information. One has to wonder how they stay on top of the larger themes that are at present reshaping their industries. CEOs often get their information from peers and select corporate officers. This seems the ideal system for perpetuating mediocre ideas. So what's a CEO to do? Chris gives us his insightful recommendations.

At a time of unprecedented business "velocity" and tumult, it is more important than ever that CEOs have access to good, balanced advice and information. One has to wonder how they stay on top of the larger themes that are at present reshaping their industries.

One also has to wonder if staying on top of larger, changing themes is as determinative of success as working with certain core principles.

First, I must confess that, as I don't know any CEOs of major corporations, my observations come from a considerable distance. I also am not - by disposition - a cheerleader for those who wield terrific amounts of corporate power.

It's largely because I envy them. That's not a comfortable thing to admit. I would like to think that I am head and shoulders above the "culture of comparison," but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Truth to tell, I'd rather not have to hustle for my daily bread the rest of my life.

So I look up and see those shining CEOs in their charmed bubbles. I think that, if it were me, I'd cash in my chips, find some beach or mountain somewhere, strum guitar, write really good letters, finally read Plato, finally re-read Walker Percy, send wonderful gifts to friends and relatives at the holidays, donate to charities, and stock up on Dr. Pepper. (I can sense my status ratcheting down several notches as you read this, good reader. I am what I am.)

CEOs often get their information from peers and select corporate officers. This seems the ideal system for perpetuating mediocre ideas. CEO peers can be candid with each other. But there is a predictable "I don't really care" zone that their counsel falls well within. This "I don't really care" zone is, in my limited observation, far larger for CEOs than it is for most folks. On the one hand, it gives them a kind of hard-boiled objectivity. On the other hand, nothing is riding on the success of their advice.

In short, fellow CEOs have nothing at stake. And it is my feeling that certain kinds of knowledge and breakthrough insights are reserved only for the most interested parties. (That last deceptively simple sentence is a cherry bomb that I am lobbing into your day.)

Speaking of interested parties, enter the select corporate officers. In the most corrosive corporate cultures, these amount to a glorified entourage: the corporate equivalent of a celebrated boxer's hangers-on. They save their moments of candor for damning descriptions of possible rivals. They relish their access to power. And they lock the gates once they're safely inside. They may seem genuinely curious about what's happening in a given division or subsidiary. They may promise to champion someone's cause. But theirs is the curiosity of one who is busy pinning the wings of various butterflies. And theirs are the promises of those who use promises as temporary sedatives.

Even in healthier corporations, where status doesn't appear to be the coin of the realm, I think it's hard to be even an occasional bearer of bad news or balanced information, especially when a company is enjoying phenomenal success.

(I recently had a phone conversation with a phenomenally successful CEO, a person I genuinely admire. There were a couple of things that I wanted to say, but I censored them because they seemed too pessimistic. I found words slipping from my mouth that sounded almost awestruck. I reminded myself, mid-conversation, of some Woody Allen parody. It didn't help that the phone call came while I was sitting around in old jogging shorts eating a melted-cheese sandwich. As I was speaking with this CEO, I was reminded of what a longtime family friend once said: "Chris, whatever you do, never try to do business in your underwear.")

So how can a CEO get good counsel?

Let's take a look at one answer: consultants. Their primary value - and I should be careful here because this gets dangerously close to soiling my own nest - is that they are from outside the company. This does not guarantee remarkable insights. But, at least, they have not yet learned what you can and what you cannot say. Some consultants make a tremendous amount of money by recording in detail what the CEO and a few other corporate officers and customers have to say. This actually is a valuable service - it's important to have a written record.

It has been my direct observation that most consultants are selling a process: a multistep way of thinking that is usually branded - e.g., "Marketectonics." If a CEO firmly believes that Marketectonics is going to change his or her view of the world, it will. If a CEO firmly believes that Marketectonics will shake, rattle, and roll the worldviews of his or her corporate circle, it will. You will hear the "new language" of this process echoing throughout the executive suite for at least a couple of months.

Now let me sound like one of these consultants for a moment and refer to a "transformational good": something that can change the entire game. In the case of consulting, the transformational good is access to the CEO. If you can quickly figure out whether bluster or complete silence is the better tack, just a couple of hours of solid CEO time can make for some seriously good juju. One note of caution: Figure out the bluster versus complete silence thing quickly. Guessing wrong can get that transformational good yanked from your mitts.

In truth, a careful consultant can bring real value to a CEO. The best consultants, in my opinion, are extraordinarily good listeners. There are whispers in every company. There are whispers between the stated thoughts of every CEO. The consultant's job is to hear and give greater voice to those whispers.

The CEO, by dint of status and position, has the agency to make his or her thoughts known. CEOs are often great articulators. Still, though, they have their whispers. What are these whispers? In some cases, they are toxic assumptions about the best ways to manage. They could be instructive doubts about a certain course of action. They could be ideas - long discounted - for whole new businesses and opportunities. There are thousands of consultants who hear these whispers every day in their work, but there are very few who trust what they hear.

So, enough with playing coy: What can a CEO do? My answers are not brilliant.

Listen to Customers. I think that CEOs need to spend a lot less time with corporate officers and far more time with customers. And I don't mean their CEO customers, either.

At least once a month, a CEO should get the name of a dissatisfied customer. Yes, I'm talking about somebody who called because they had a complaint or wanted a refund. Then I would have that CEO (without indicating his or her lofty position) actually call or visit the customer to listen to the details of the complaint. Oh, and it's not fair to have the call placed by an administrative assistant who announces to the startled customer, "Please hold for Michael Dell."

(To repeat something I wrote in an article last year: CEOs should at times do what Peter the Great supposedly did. The czar would dress as a peasant and wander among his people, listening to their authentic voices. Customers, too, have authentic voices.)

Let's be careful, though, with what is learned. It serves no one's best interests if a CEO is out gathering mud to sling at the corporate picnic.

Eavesdrop on Investors. CEOs should also spend at least one good evening a month on the web. If theirs is a public company, they should "lurk" on various investor threads. It is still surprising to me what one can learn about a company by sifting through several postings.

Independent Research. Occasionally, a CEO should actually research his or her own company, doing keyword searches, tracking down articles and even newsgroup postings. Oh, I know, many CEOs get briefed on how their companies are perceived among the analyst and press communities. However, it is one thing to be briefed - relying on someone else's filter - and another to gather your own information.

Listen to Employees. I have heard of CEOs of two major corporations who, despite all sorts of demands on their time, still maintain an "open door policy" for any employee. That seems impracticable in this age of global enterprises. It is also very encouraging.

Read Two Wonderful Books: "Servant Leadership," by Robert Greenleaf, and "Birth of the Chaordic Age," by Dee Hock.

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Chris Maher

Chris Maher is president of FOSFORUS, an Austin-based company that provides business-to-business advertising, media, marketing and interactive services. For seventeen years, Chris has been a top creative director and agency principal. His campaigns have generated a cumulative total of $200 million in technology sales for companies like Dell, Tivoli, Microsoft, i2 Technologies, ClickCommerce, and FreeMarkets.

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