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Three diseases of C-level executives

George Tillmann | June 21, 2012
Beware: Hubris, sycophantism and dformation professionnelle can spread from the corner office to IT.

Why do good companies go bad?

Google, once the hoped-for slayer of the evil empire, has become a pretender to the dark crown. With its privacy issues, allegations of snooping and opposition to Net neutrality, Google seems to have turned its back on its "Don't be evil" motto. Facebook has spent so much time wrestling with privacy issues that it could take on Randy Orton in a WWE SmackDown. Microsoft, according to some critics, should spend more time listening to its customers and perfecting what it currently sells and less time trying to corner every market in Silicon Valley. Apple is widely seen as arrogant and dictatorial. How did these one-time princes of light succumb to the dark side? What were the leaders of these companies thinking?

Three even more troubling questions are: Does a corner office change one's view of the world? Do "cornerites" suffer from diseases that the likes of you and me are not prone to? Can these same diseases affect IT? The answer to all three questions, unfortunately, is, "Sometimes."

Not bound by geography, or even limited by profession, there are three maladies that can infect the high and the mighty. Defensive subordinates, as well as corporate up-and-comers, need to watch for the afflicted and avoid them at all costs. Let's look at each in uncomfortable detail.

Hubris, or arrogance, is the most common C-level disease. Feeling that you are so good you cannot possibly be wrong has brought down executives, politicians, even entire corporations. Hubris can lead smart people to make some incredibly dumb decisions. Arrogance was rampant in Enron, which went beyond thinking that whatever it did was right to the notion that any idea its leaders came up with should be lawful simply because Enron could make money with it. Unfortunately for Enron, it suffered from end-stage hubris, and expired. Not only does it no longer exist, but many of its former senior executives went to jail.

Some critics believe Microsoft suffers from this disease. They argue that Microsoft believes it is better at deciding what you need than you are, so paying attention to customers is a waste of time.

In an IT organization, hubris is often exhibited as a condescending attitude toward users. Symptoms include snide comments and jokes at the expense of those who earn the revenue that IT so willingly spends. More serious cases involve slow response to user requests, protracted studies of obvious improvements, and rigidity in scheduling, executing and approving changes.

The second C-level disease is sycophantism. This one manifests with executives surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, who tell them only what they want to hear. Sufferers of sycophantism equate disagreement with disloyalty. New or opposing ideas are not allowed, and those who voice them are banished. Many recent books on the George W. Bush administration tell of how loyalty, not just to the president but also to the president's ideas, was required. Dissenters were eventually replaced. In the business world, some people charge that the halls of Oracle are a dangerous place for those with nonconforming opinions.


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