Gary Hamel offers a post well worth reading on “Why Success Often Sows the Seeds of Failure,” in his Management 2.0 blog at the Wall Street Journal.  He takes some tough and well-earned shots at the narrow-minded thinking of executives that foments the eventual demise of formerly good organizations.

In my opinion, the habits and traps that bedevil formerly successful companies also exist in those less-than successful organizations.   Regardless of starting point, the tendencies and habits of ineffective executive leadership are not hard to see.  In theory, they shouldn’t be hard to call out and change.  However, we don’t.  Why not?

A few of Hamel’s observations:

Hamel: “Years of continuous improvement produce an ultra-efficient business system—one that’s highly optimized, and also highly inflexible. Successful businesses are usually good at doing one thing, and one thing only. Over-specialization kills adaptability.”

Art’s Comment: Motorola (Cellular) is my poster child for this one.  This early adopter and advocate of Six Sigma become great at providing playgrounds for legions of engineers to create a smorgasbord of products that no one wanted or wants.  Processes were golden, but no one had a clue about the customer or what competitors were doing. 

They hit a low when the new CEO brought in to turn-around the Cell division (success doubtful) gave a phone to his wife and after trying to use it she gave it back, indicating (paraphrase) “If I have to use a manual to figure out how to use the phone it is too complicated.”

Hamel: “Long-tenured executives develop a deep base of industry experience and find it hard to question cherished beliefs. In successful companies, managers usually have a fine-grained view of “how the industry works,” and tend to discount data that would challenge their assumptions. Over time, mental models become hard-wired.”

Art’s Comment: I’ll pick on the hiring authorities for this one.  Many boards and management teams demand that hires walk in the door with such precise level of industry and sometimes technology knowledge, that they guarantee Hamel’s hard wiring.  Entire industry trade talent over time and ensure that the same bad-old ideas and ingrained biases of the industry remain in place, stifling creativity. 

Hamel: “Caretaker executives who’ve never been entrepreneurs and have never built something out of nothing are prone to view success as an entitlement, rather than the result of innovation, gut-wrenching decisions and perseverance. Isolated from the bleeding edge of change by subservient minions, they start believing their own speeches.”

Art’s Comment: Wow!  That’s a lot to take in in one sentence.  Amen to the need for executives to be faced with the challenges to build and innovate and to feel the pressure of Hamel’s self-described gut-wrenching decisions.  Nothing like a good dose of real-world accountability to knock some hubris out of the leader.

It seems like the auto companies, especially GM, missed this memo.

Why Can’t We Tell the Emperor About the Lack of Clothes?

It’s easy and fun to pick on the people in charge. They are big, easy targets with plenty of faults to single out.  The bad habits, poor attitudes and ego issues that Hamel points out are painfully easy for all of us to see.  Yet time and again we allow ourselves to be blinded and made deaf and mute by the light and actions coming out of the executive suite.

Perhaps part of the cure for what ails us is for people to screw up the courage to talk about problems and pursue actions to fix them.  Maybe the revolution doesn’t start in the executive suite

My friend and a sage leadership advisor, Wally Bock, writes frequently at his Three Star Leadership blog about the power and importance of the Supervisory-class of leaders—those front-line leaders and the import that they play to a firm’s success.  Maybe we need to retool top leadership by modeling the right behaviors from the bottom of the pyramid. 

A few of these “Right Behaviors” include:

  • Frank discussions about what’s working and what’s not
  • Environments where challenging the status quo is appreciated and encouraged
  • Hiring practices that don’t involve cloning and that do allow for creativity in bringing on-board unique skill sets and talents.
  • Development practices that include “Charan’s” apprentice model so that upcoming leaders can face the gut wrenching decisions and grow in the process.

Last and not least: making it a core value and behavior inside a firm to cry “Foul” when the leaders up above pontificate while walking sans clothing through the business day.

What’s to stop us from starting to get this right?