Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Taking Inventory to keep the ego in balance

On August 7, 2010, Mark Hurd, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard resigned amidst a cloud of questions regarding his relationship with a female vendor and a clear-cut accusation of cheating on his expense report.  Here is a guy who by most any visible measure, hit the cover off the ball at HP.  On his watch, the Palo Alto, California-based company regained leadership in the PC market from Dell Inc. and used acquisitions to expand into new areas, such as computer services.  The company’s stock-market value increased $44.6 billion--rising to $108.1 billion since Hurd took the helm on April 1, 2005.   

How could he let this happen?  We will never know the whole truth but extremely poor judgment is the reason we have read about in the papers and from Hurd himself.  All too often these days, we have seen many cases of extremely successful people falling from grace (more like crashing) due to “poor judgment.”   However, that explanation is too simplistic, too pat and just too easy.  It makes the infraction sound lack a simple oversight or what we all like to call these days a case of “brain freeze.”

I don’t believe any of these descriptions really get to the heart of the matter:  out-of-control ego.  I’m not interested in getting into a deeply psychological treatment of ego.  Rather,  just consider the picture you have in your mind when you describe someone as egotistic and/or self-centered.   It isn’t pretty. 

Hurd situation falls into this latter category.  Why would Mark Hurd, with all he had going for him, take these kinds of risks?  How about this hypothesis:  his egotism convinced him that he wasn’t taking risks at all.  He was above risk.  His rewards ( he reportedly earned $42 million in 2008 and $24 million in 2009) and position power became proof enough that  he really was “that good”.   He believed his own press. 

Leaders of large corporations have big responsibilities and large burdens.  Leading at the top of any organization is not easy.   It is a highly consuming job where your personal and professional life become fused;  you are often engaged 24/7 in leading your organization.  However, the rewards for these burdens are high.   You can become incredibly wealthy and have wide influence over decisions that most people can only view from the sidelines.   If you are great CEO, you are worth the money you are paid.    However, your compensation shouldn’t be just about rewarding the stockholders;  it must also be a measure of your character as a leader.   Believe it, character still matters, even though recent events might say otherwise.

Strong leaders maintain a balanced view of themselves.  They recognize how fortunate they are to have achieved a significant degree of success in their professional lives. They are also humbled by their obligations and responsibilities.  While  they often  highly confident, demanding, and driven, they work hard to keep their egos in check.   This humility acts an antidote to ego inflation.  It is a safeguard against the kind of ego driven self-deception that launched Mark Hurd from HP.  I would suggest that all of us ask a few questions of ourselves to gauge the health of our own egos:
  1. Am I truly thankful for the things I have, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually?
  2. Do I recognize that in many ways, my success isn’t the result of JUST me?  For instance, was  I born into good circumstances?  I also received indispensable  help from others. 
  3. Do I express frequent appreciation to others for their contribution to my success?
  4. Am I a genuine, high values role model?

This inventory is a simple way to keep our egos in balance.  If all of us in business earnestly asked the above questions every day, there is no doubt that we would create more value for everyone.  The world would be a better place.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One Match

The Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana is considered the crown jewel of the American west. It is over one million acres of pristine, wild and rugged terrain in the Rocky Mountains. This was the backdrop for many childhood vacations planned by my father; a man who believed that exertion, awe and trepidation were essential to any family holiday. My first trip occurred when I was five years old. 

It was in this setting that I was taught the rule of “one match.” My father’s thinking was simple: if you were lost in the wilderness and resources became scarce, the ability to start a fire using only one match could someday be the difference between life and death. He was the instructor and the pressure to perform was exceptionally high. “This is one of those things you must get right.”

We all groused and as we grew older this “life lesson” became a joke told at family gatherings. Of course, in hindsight, my father was right. If you want to enjoy the isolation and adventure of the American wilderness, there are a few essential skills where aiming for perfection is appropriate.

As business leaders, it is important to know your “one match” skills. Which skills demand close to perfect performance? Listening fits into this category. Without exceptional listening skills, you will perish in the wilderness. Information is like heat from a fire; active listening gets the fire started and keeps it going. When it comes to listening, “practice does make perfect” and perfection is the goal.

Take some time to consider your “one match” skills. Consider the implication of your unique environment and business situation. By identifying and practicing these skills, you will enjoy your business challenges instead of being consumed by them.