I first became aware of the implications of this condition some years ago. It was at a time when the market was less exciting than now and where the opportunity therefore arose to spend time with ‘career vacationers’. A visitor arrived who had been with the same organisation for over fifteen years and who had been recently terminated. With a CV that mapped out a consistent history of progress and achievement, I wondered why my shell-shocked caller was sitting in front of me. He was doubtful of his own abilities and clearly struggling with the guilt he felt over his departure. This he attributed solely to inadequacies on his part though, when pressed, he couldn’t easily identify what they were. This made his mental state even more anguished.
Slowly, over the course of an hour, we explored the background and eventually, in a cathartic moment, identified the root cause. A new Chief Executive had arrived, assessed his team and found it wanting. My visitor was essentially a victim. He just didn’t fit requirements (and probably never could) and was therefore discounted. He and his colleagues suffered the severe disadvantage of being associated with an ancient regime – one, moreover, that performed – something with which the new appointee just didn’t feel comfortable.
Now, despite the fact that I am a mistyeyed, idealistic innocent, I do recognise that there are individuals who don’t or can’t perform, who can’t adapt or who, putting it pragmatically, have outlived their usefulness. However, I have subsequently seen enough similar cases to conclude that there is more to this scenario than failure to perform. It is symptomatic of a reluctance to accept that another’s team can perform as effectively and as loyally with a new leader and of the fact that even the most accomplished and apparently confident Chief Executive can feel compelled to slash and burn.
So why is it that when a new Chief Executive Officer arrives, the letter opener in the hands of the Marketing Director reminds him of Casca and the Finance Director seems to possess a singularly lean and hungry look – though this might go with the territory!
The answer for me lies potentially in two areas. You don’t get to be a leader without possessing some kind of ego. It could be argued that the cull associated with the new arrival is therefore an expression of a desire to be surrounded by individuals of a similar outlook and reflective of the values and aspirations of the appointee - not necessarily a negative, I grant. A cynic might see in the increasing use of the competency profile - leaving aside for the moment those elements that are blindingly obvious or platitudinous – components that bear an uncanny resemblance to those uppermost in the mind of the person at the top.
However, I don’t believe that egotism is the only or primary answer. My conclusion is that the underlying driver is fear. In an increasingly results-focused world, absolute, irrefutable success is harder and harder to identify and achieve, and in striving - in some cases for the seemingly impossible - the person at the top is less and less likely to trust in the fallibility of others. So it is fear of personal failure attributable to the impact of others that drives this process.
What of the implications? We are led to believe that our new economic order is built on continuous improvement, a performance culture and the management of change. I am sure that there are other well-rehearsed clichés but let’s leave it at these for now. As a result, all change is good and anyone who has talent will relish the challenge and be adept at – horrible phrase – managing ambiguity. This is a supposition, I believe, which could have negative implications.
To quote an example, I recently attended a careers fair at a well known university. I went armed with Everyman’s Guide to Success in Assessment Centres, believing that young graduates will still favour the corporate career and be desperate to gain a grip on the first rung of the ladder. Not so! Two out of the first three I met wanted to talk to me about entrepreneurialism. A small sample I know but, for me, significant nonetheless. These are Thatcher’s children, who witnessed wholesale redundancies at all levels and
who know that a long career with an organisation is now a liability, not a strength. No one is likely to see thirty years at one organisation any more and those that stay more than ten years – even in their thirties – run the risk of being viewed as institutionalised, too conventional, unambitious and incapable of change.
What this encourages, apart from a desire to be the master of one’s own destiny, is as Grout and Perrin report it, the rise of the ‘career mercenary’. Essentially, guns for hire to the most convenient and best rewarding employer. Loyalty to individuals - (after all, we work with and for other people, not institutions) - is undermined and continuity threatened. A spiral of unrestricted flux, inflation and compromised business values could well be the outcome.
I am not sure there is an easy solution to all this, and many people may not share my concerns, but I would like to suggest that more thought be given to these issues. Firstly, there is a need for the financial community to recognise that sustainable results require an investment of time. Short-termism is too prevalent and feeds paranoia.
Secondly, I would like to see chief executives given one more target amongst the multitude they already shoulder - making an existing team perform better. Surely, in the final analysis, this is a greater achievement than picking unthreatening apparatchiks. Everyone benefits, the team inherited gets a chance to take performance to a new level, the new CEO has the kudos of facilitating this, the backers get better dividends and search fees are drastically reduced…um, maybe I’d better think this through!