The Four Pillars of Failure – Why Boards fall out of love with their Chief Executives

I remember getting a call from a CEO who sounded like she’d just been run over by a freight train. “It came out of the blue,” she said. “I had no idea what hit me.”

What she failed to anticipate was her firing by the board of directors she thought she knew. She had delivered countless employee evaluations over the years but had failed to prepare for the one that mattered most—her own.

You might be surprised to learn that her experience was not unusual. Executives at the top of organizations, whether public or private, are nearly always highly intelligent, highly ambitious, committed to the organization’s success and, most often, persons of high integrity. But none of these attributes ensures that they will have a successful relationship with their board of directors, city council or another oversight body.

I have conducted more than 100 performance evaluations for senior executives and worked with thousands of board and city council members tasked with the critical job of evaluating their employees. Everyone in these positions wants to succeed.  So how do things go wrong?

One of the biggest blind spots for CEOs is that they don’t insist on or participate in their own regular performance evaluation, where they get to recalibrate, course-correct and communicate what they need to do to be successful. Often, by the time I arrive on the scene, it’s too late. Things have already gotten out of hand and the dreaded result has become a fait accompli.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the reasons top executives fail, and trust is broken with the board or council, often are not easy to identify.   Of course, ethical lapses and failings of integrity—simple dishonesty—can and do bring down a CEO. And there is the scrutiny of personal values, which can lead to disturbing and ultimately consequential revelations. But let’s focus on the less obvious, though far more common, reasons for failure at the top:

4 Reasons Why CEO’s Fail

  1. Failure to Listen, Clarify and Implement Direction. Successful, visionary leaders develop exceptional listening and facilitation skills. They engage stakeholders to define the mission and accomplish board-adopted goals.   They expect results and help the organization understand how to set priorities and achieve intended outcomes. Failure to define outcomes and build a work plan with specific measurable steps and timelines bring many well-meaning executives down.  These skills help effective leaders make tough decisions and show by example the courage of their convictions. These leaders are willing to try new ideas, tolerate different opinions, take risks and embrace change.
  2. Failure to Communicate Equitably. 
    1. Unsuccessful CEOs fail the equity test in how they communicate to the Board as a whole and to its individual members. If there is a real or perceived sense that some faction receives different or more comprehensive information, there will be serious negative consequences. Successful CEOs adhere to a “no surprises” rule with their board members, which goes both ways, and all parties honor that as a core value.
    2. Successful CEOs communicate to their employees in a simple, direct and timely fashion, which ensures that channels of communication in the organization are always open. They do not waste time or lose credibility by trying to preserve artificial harmony; they recognize that productive conflict is appropriate.  Clearly, understood leaders are straight-forward in how they communicate; they know when to give feedback and don’t hesitate to ask for it in return. Without those willing to follow, a leader doesn’t exist.
  3. Failure to Share the Spotlight. Too much time in the “sunshine,” while not paying sufficient deference to the Board or others they report to can be fatal to a career.  Leading is about sharing the credit for the organization’s successes. Wise leaders understand the political environment and the needs and positions of special interests and policymakers, yet are careful to not be perceived as being overly political.  The worst disease that can afflict a leader is egotism, which impedes the empowerment of line staff through effective delegation, coaching, and acknowledgment.  No one mourns when the big-ego attention grabber goes down. The bigger the ego, the harder the fall.
  4. Failure to be Appropriately Visible and Engaged. Astute leaders invest personal time in the organization and community–and seek to understand emerging issues and concerns. They view their cabinet or leadership team as trusted advisors and seek group success.  They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. As Ken Blanchard says, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Together, everyone accomplishes more.The chief executives need to be visible—in both formal and informal settings—and needs to meet personally with line staff to build trust by working to understand in some detail what they do. Of course, CEOs are busy but too many chief executives spend too much time in their offices. They would do well to follow David Packard’s famously simple philosophy of “Management By Walking Around.”

Leadership isn’t easy. But the attributes that propel executives to the top of an organization—smarts, drive, focus—aren’t necessarily the ones that help them stay there. Leadership isn’t a means to an end; it’s a process, a marathon that requires a diverse set of less obvious and often subtle skills. There’s no silver bullet, no magic guarantee of success. But if you take to heart and internalize the lessons of the Four Pillars of Failure, your odds of lasting at the top will be much improved. Good luck!

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