Performance Management at the CEO level is a tricky affair and most organisations do not handle it well. Invariably, the performance of the CEO is equated with the performance of the company which to an extent is understandable. What gets ignored is that the CEO is only one of the several factors affecting the overall performance and not its sole determinant. There are many other variables including the Owners/Board members themselves. However in their deliberations, one often gets the impression that almost everything can be attributed to the CEO particularly when it comes to diagnosing failures. In such situations it is very rare to find Owners/Board members who are willing to look at their own contribution to the failure except to the extent of having chosen the wrong CEO.
Some time back, I was witness to an “informal “chat amongst owners/board members of a company about their disappointment with the performance of the CEO. At some stage I asked them if they had tried to look at the situation from the CEO’s point of view. First my question was ignored and then I was told “we gave him a long rope but he failed to deliver and whenever we try to give him feed back, he becomes defensive and only offers lame excuses”. I could not explain to them that “giving feed-back” is not the same as “listening to some one” nor could I make them see that what they considered as “long rope” may not have been experienced as such by the CEO. When I tried to point out some of the genuine difficulties that he may be facing, I was told that ” he is the CEO and it is his job to solve these problems”
The experience left me with an uneasy feeling that perhaps they had no clue about what may have been going inside the CEO -his difficulties, dilemmas, vulnerabilities, self-doubts etc. The expectation seemed to be that he should have no such “angularities” and should not need any “emotional support”. So long as the performance parameters are clear, fair and mutually agreed upon, he must either “perform” or “perish”. Thus it is hardly surprising that all such situations create a stalemate and get settled only after the ties are severed. It is another matter that in many such situations, difficulties persist even after the CEO is replaced with a new incumbent, because the underlying issues are not addressed.
The difficulty of “listening” to some one who is lower than us in power/status hierarchy is fairly common in all spheres of life and at all levels. What makes it particularly problematic at the top level are the following factors-
- At lower levels it is generally easier to separate the parties concerned by shifting them to new positions. This is virtually impossible in case of a CEO except in case of conglomerates. Even here the people concerned remain more or less the same and the dynamics does not change appreciably.
- At lower levels, the individuals concerned have other people (friends, colleagues etc) to talk to. Such sharing is a cathartic release and also provides an opportunity for the individual to reflect upon his /her own stances/behaviour. This is virtually impossible in case of a CEO where any hint of trouble between Owners/Board and CEO can have disastrous consequences.
- At lower levels, there is a possibility of a third party intervention(HR, Mentor, other senior colleagues etc) In case of a CEO this third party can only be an external consultant who is likely to be (or at least perceived as ) an accomplice of the Owners/Board.
- Most importantly, in case of CEOs the people concerned on both sides have successful track records and are generally accustomed to being “listened to” rather than “listening themselves”. Consequently any difference of opinion between them becomes extremely difficult to handle. Also appearing self confident and being “on top of the situation” is almost a second nature to them. Hence displaying any doubts, confusions, vulnerabilities is a strict No-No. The end result is that what gets transacted is only the tip of the ice-berg and the real issues remain unaddressed.
None of these difficulties are unsurmountable. In fact, the answer is ridiculously simple-just to listen. This lack of listening is generally not deliberate and is often accompanied by a genuine desire to help and support. The only difficulty is that both sides remain entrenched in their respective beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the problem and what would constitute meaningful help and support. In absence of willingness/ability to review one’s own stances, no meaningful dialogue is possible.
In this sense, there is not much difference between what happens at the CEO level and what happens at other levels except that the consequences are a lot more disastrous at the top level.However in several other spheres of life (e.g. parent-child, social activists and their target groups etc.) the consequences can be equally disastrous. As the saying goes “helping without understanding is counter productive” but when it is also accompanied by differences in the relative power of the people concerned, it can become deadly.