Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Life Lessons From Abraham: The CEO Of a Startup Religion

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 15

Abraham was raised in ancient Sumeria, a world where the dominant culture was pagan.  Gods were everywhere, from Anu the sky god, to regional gods, to small amulets and magic charms that were a big part of everyday life.  Abraham’s cause was not simply a matter of a single divinity- it was a completely different way of life. And if we look at the number of followers as a scorecard, I think he was onto something.  According to the Big Religion Comparison Chart, there are 14 Million Jews, 2 Billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, all of whom look at Abraham as the father of monotheism.   For those of us looking to bust  our modern idols, there is a lot we can learn from Abraham.

For Abraham, monotheism was not an abstract, metaphysical question about the number of deities.  Abraham was the CEO of a start up religion, and he was looking to change the world.  He had an unshakable identity and powerful personality that attracted followers.  And like any good startup CEO, he could lay out a vision and make others believe.  By intellectual reasoning, Abraham showed that something created by man should not become the object of worship.  For Abraham, there was one creator who put forth rules of right and wrong that did not change.  This was very different than the pagan world, where right and wrong changed depending on the deity, and is also different than the corporate world, where right and wrong behavior is defined by corporate culture.

As I argued in Chapter 2, the universal values are The Golden Rule tempered by The Rule of Self Preservation.  In the next post, we’ll look at the limitations of Abraham’s identity-based approach to change.

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When Stress Goes Up, Perspective Goes Down

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 6

In the last post, Harry T. Lobo, the high integrity executive we met in Chapter 4 who was demoted after a year as COO, even though from an objective standpoint the company met an aggressive set of revenue and product launch targets.   When Harry described himself as exhausted, I asked if the CEO pressured him by calling him at home.

No, he said “the pressure more subtle and psychological, the ‘you’re not really up to it’ sort of thing.  Harry described feeling “bruised and battered,” and at times questioning his own competence.

“It’s not as if I’m sitting around not thinking about this day in and day out.  If it’s still not good enough how the hell can I possibly improve? How can I be getting this wrong with all the work I’m putting in?  But then with me the grit and determination comes in, and I say ‘I’m not going to be defeated by this.  How CAN I address some of the issues being raised here?’  It means either going back to what you were doing with renewed confidence to push it a bit harder, faster, etc.  Or you could say, ok, I’m doing something wrong here.”

In my opinion, those very qualities that made Harry an effective CEO in his next position – loyalty, tenacity, self confidence – worked against him in this situation.  Sometimes, continuing to fight is not the right answer.  In hindsight, Harry understands that the CEO’s expectation of 15% growth because “the technology was so great” was not rational.  But at the time, when he was in the thick of it, just wasn’t possible to take that longer perspective.

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What Happens When High Integrity CEO Meets Toxic Culture?

Chapter 6:  Corporate Culture -The Invisible Hand of the Company Part 4

If you take a high integrity  person and put them in a toxic and/or unethical culture, which would win?  In other words, to what degree can an individual influence and change corporate culture?  It’s a question we’ll come back to multiple times in this chapter.

Lets start with an extreme example: What if Harry T Lobo, a highly respected and effective CEO we met in Chapter 4, were made the CEO of Goldman Sachs, a company thought by many to have an unethical culture. (Greg Smith’s very public resignation made public the callus and thoughtless way Goldman treated their clients. See this post on the subject for more.)  Harry, who is not known for his modesty, didn’t think he could change the company value system.  Harry told me “[It would] depend on the company, and how long the value system existed.  Goldman Sachs [is very big and is] proud of the way it operates.”  Harry explained to me that everyone working there shared those values, and the organization is too big to change by the CEO alone.

It took Harry five years to change the culture of the mid-sized organization he is currently running.  When he arrived, the company was full of “empire builders,”  with a “negative, finger pointing, aggressive culture.”  People who were resistant to the values he was instilling are “no longer around.”  Harry said that he let this happen over time, as people realized they no longer fit in they left, and people who espoused the values he was looking for were promoted.  (And see this post to see a case where Harry dismissed someone for being manipulative.)

This is a common theme I heard throughout the interviews I conducted, and is well described in the literature: People who fit best with the company values, whatever they may be, will tend to be promoted more quickly.

So how did Harry respond when he was working as a Senior VP in a toxic culture?  Did he change the culture, or was he changed by it?

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Is a CEO Who Is Reluctant To Lay People Off Being Too Nice?

Chapter 4: Who To Trust At Work Post 15

In the last post, we met Harold T Lobo, a CEO who abolished his parking space and made coffee every morning for the office.  But make no mistake, Harry set a high bar for performance.  According to people who worked for him, Harry was direct, and could be intimidating.  But he was always professional and never personal.  So I was surprised to hear Harry say that some people thought him too nice.

“On several occasions in my career when in a CEO role, the board took a view that I was being too soft on employees in terms of cost reduction.  Part of the role of a non-executive [board member] is to be much more ruthless and much more cold minded in terms of cost reduction, reducing heads.  As a manager you know these people day to day, and you’re the one who will be sitting opposite the desk telling them they haven’t got a job any more.  There were occasions [where they thought] I should be taking a stronger, more disciplinary stance with individuals.  I spend more time trying to see things from their point of view.  I have met very few individuals, I can count them on one hand, where they are out to deliberately put themselves ahead or to sabotage other people.  Usually it is different views about what is best for the company.”

This last passage is telling in several ways.  First of all, we can see the tension between Harry’s personal values, and the value system being pushed by the directors, to focus on numbers and not people.  Second, Harry’s belief that very few people are deliberately trying to “put themselves ahead” is consistent with a wolf’s propensity to be too trusting. Harry thinks that people just have “different views about what is best for the company.”  As we discussed earlier, not everyone shares Harry’s values about treating others fairly. In addition, “what’s best for the company” tends to frame issues in a way that inherently puts “what’s best for people” as a lower priority, which is a characteristic of corporate idolatry.

While Harry has a Wolf’s bias towards too much trust, he did not get to be CEO without developing methods to identify a Fox, and deal with him effectively.

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