By Geoff Smart, Elena Botelho, and Kim Powell
Geoff: Hey Elena and Kim, your book is about to hit bookstores!
Elena/Kim: Yes! It’s exciting.
G: Tell our readers, how long did it take to write?
E/K: The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders took over 20 years to collect the data—in-depth data on over 17,000 successful and unsuccessful careers—leaders who became CEO and those who didn’t. It took about 10 years to analyze, and 3 years to write.
G: Well that sounds highly credible! What are the main points of the book?
E/K: We’ve talked a lot about the main points of the book. Let’s do something fun for our readers. Do you remember that game you played in elementary school, “Opposite Day?”
G: Yes, like when you say the opposite of everything that is true.
E/K: Exactly. So let’s play Opposite Day today as it relates to career success. We will reveal not what the 4 behaviors are that lead to career success. We’ll describe the OPPOSITE of those success behaviors.
G: OK so what’s the first behavior our readers should avoid?
E/K: The opposite of “decisiveness” is indecision. So our readers should avoid being indecisive.
G: I recall a senior executive with a legal background who wanted to become CEO. However, the board said that he was not willing to answer their questions directly, and he was not willing to make decisions quickly enough. It seemed that he could not shake his legal training and his instinct to say “on one hand, on the other” and “we don’t have all of the information to make that decision” and “we’ll know more when…” And he seemed scattered because he just could not decide on the short list of priorities. He didn’t get the job. The board wanted a CEO who would answer questions directly, identify priorities, and make decisions rapidly.
E/K: The second behavior to avoid is engaging for affinity vs. impact.
G: This point is important. I think too much of the career success and leadership success field encourages people to engage for affinity—to seek to be liked vs. focusing on the task that needs to be done. The root of this distinction is Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s “situational leadership”—the idea that sometimes a leader should focus on getting along with a person, sometimes a leader should focus more on the task at hand. I knew Paul. He was a mentor of mine. He felt that the “affinity” instinct was not always the right answer, and could be overused. Indeed, our research at ghSMART suggests that leaders who are good at engaging for impact (which requires varying one’s approach to focus on the person sometimes and focus on the task depending on the situation) are better than those who seek to be liked in all situations. Do you remember that one prison warden candidate we once evaluated for a governor?
E/K: The prison warden who engaged for affinity—who liked to be liked too much? And wasn’t as strict with the rules as he should have been?
G: Yes, he let the prisoners run the prison! And this led to security breaches, and even injuries and the deaths of his officers. Engaging for affinity, to a fault, can be a life-and-death mistake a leader can make! Needless to say, that candidate did not get the job.
E/K: The third behavior to avoid is finding too much comfort in your ways, because your routine has worked before.
G: This one is consistent with Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. And I know Marshall talks about a career derailer that happens when leaders use the excuse “that’s just me.” The way we observe this pitfall is when an executive has a strategic playbook that worked before, but is not relevant in a new context. I remember a private equity titan was considering hiring a hedge fund wunderkind to start a new business. But what was revealed was the trader was planning to re-use a trading strategy that most in that industry had deemed “obsolete.” And he did not appear to be able to adapt to new market conditions. So he didn’t get that job.
E/K: Another version of being too comfortable with your status quo is to be unwilling to flex your leadership style when needed.
G: I remember a tech industry manager who wanted to become CEO. She was known for leading with a high degree of “urgency” during crises to solve problems—and indeed this approach worked during turnarounds. The problem was, she never found a steady state leadership approach to scale the business, and her best people left because they grew tired of the fire drills while living in a constant state of emergency.
E/K: The final behavior to avoid is to have “flashes of brilliance” guide your leadership approach.
G: Say more about that one.
E/K: Surges of creativity and “on the spot innovation” have gotten a lot of positive press lately. We are sorry to rain on that parade. Our research suggests that spikes and variability in a leader’s approach is not as predictive of career success as consistency and reliability in achieving results.
G: That piece of advice really resonates with what I have personally witnessed. I remember meeting a CEO succession candidate at a data services company who wanted to become CEO. He was considered brilliant, creative, and innovative. He was all those things. But once we dug into his career history, what we found was a highly erratic employment pattern—he spent 1 year here, 6 months there, often without delivering results. He left big companies to create “disruptive” startups, with a pivot here, a pivot there, each of which died rapid deaths. And he was back in the corporate world trying to talk his way into a CEO job. The board simply did not have confidence that this candidate had the consistency and follow-through to achieve the long-term financial and operating goals of the business. Sounds boring, but the board opted for a candidate who was likely to achieve “reliable and repeatable results” vs. “flash in the pan” innovative ideas du jour.
E/K: Reliable performance alone won’t guarantee you will be hired as CEO, or succeed once you are there, but it will give you an advantage over others whose performance you can’t count on.
G: So please summarize the opposite of the 4 success behaviors.
E/K: Our advice is to not be indecisive, because being a successful CEO requires fast decision making. Second, don’t always engage in relationships with the goal of being liked. Engage for impact. Third, don’t be too comfortable in thinking that your favorite strategy or leadership style will always be relevant; adapt your strategy and style! Fourth, don’t be known for spikes of disruptive innovation and a lack of sustainable performance; reliable results speak louder!
For more insights and stories to illustrate these points, please check out our new book HERE!