The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.Friedrich Nietzsche
This is not a supportive article with a kind tone, it is a rant. A rant to the CEO of my company from someone who you have repeatedly expected to pick up the pieces of your ill-conceived and hubristic visions. I have done this for over a decade without any thanks, or even acknowledgment. I’ve done this for a paycheck, but a paycheck can take you only so far. A paycheck makes you work only hard enough not to get fired.
My company had an e-commerce website where customers could both order products online and also find the closest location that offered those products for sale. In 2016, the CEO decided to discontinue the site because “nobody orders our products online.”
Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic is in full swing. The same CEO decides we need an e-commerce website because “everybody is ordering online.” Great expense and effort were expended to stand up a new e-commerce website, which we had fully functional before he decided to get rid of it. Two years later it still is not functional. Now the CEO’s mistake should be forgiven because nobody can see into the future, right? Yes, except for two things: 1) He claimed to be a visionary who could see future trends, and 2) over a dozen people in both the Marketing and Technology departments warned him that shutting down the original website was a risky move. He did it anyway.
I know. You cannot get it right all the time. Fair enough. Just don’t expect others to hang onto your “visions” with fanatical loyalty from now on. Moreover, scores of people now pay the price in long hours of work to re-invent the perfectly fine and functional wheel you already had four years ago. You also ignored the experienced team you had in-house and hired a new team of outsiders who had to start all over again. They built systems that already existed, entered gigabytes of data that had already been entered, pulled from the wrong data, designed web pages that had already been designed, and made dozens of mistakes that had already been made. They had no clue what had already been created inside the company as they scurried to create parallel systems with no knowledge of what was already there, no knowledge of what would and would not work, no knowledge of what had already been tried and failed, and no knowledge of the company itself.
Here are the fallacies that brought you to where you are:
You Think You Know
You think you know everything, but you don’t know what is going on in your organization. I see it very clearly in the statements you make. You are completely disconnected from what is happening in your organization. What is worse, you have no clue how disconnected you really are.
Have you ever heard of leadership by walking around? It is not a new or difficult concept. I used it when I commanded a military unit in combat. Every day I would walk around to the forward positions and speak to the soldiers in the trenches. I learned a lot about what was going on, because I met the men on their turf and they were comfortable speaking to me. Town halls and open meetings with the boss aren’t going to cut it. People won’t tell you what’s really going on if it is something you arranged, isn’t on their turf, and has people present who they don’t trust. You’ll just get a bunch of bobble-heads nodding that everything is fine.
When you meet people on their turf, either alone or with their friends, they will be much more open to telling you things, both good and bad. However, be very careful in how you react to the bad. If you get them in trouble, by making their bosses come down on them, they will never confide in you again. You can still do leadership by walking around in a remote work environment. Just reach out to people on the company instant messenger. It is not optimal, but still a much better solution than what you are doing.
Culture of Cronyism
You rely on cronies and yes men to keep you informed. The most aggressively enthusiastic people in your face are not the ones who will tell you reality. They are aggressively in your face for a reason, and that reason is their own self-interests. They usually self-nominated for higher positions so they could have your ear and reap the benefits thereof. They will not tell you anything negative or with the potential of generating hard work that might fail. They are master politicians who not only go along to get along, they manipulate your vision of reality so they can get along better. Instead, personally reach down to competent people who are not expecting you to ask their advice. Do it one-on-one. You will lose nothing and probably gain some valuable insight.
Moreover, when people in the trenches try to bring something to your attention or make suggestions for improvement, it disappears into a black hole. I’ve done so several times without any acknowledgment from you. I do not know if you are just “too busy” or if someone is handling your messages for you and deems mine unimportant. So be it. I did not continue to waste my time trying to inform you. Your loss, not mine. It is certainly your prerogative to choose which advice you will consider, but at least be honest about it and stop spouting off your cliches about empowering employees in your emails and company meetings. You’re not empowering anyone, except the yes men surrounding you.
When you need a problem solved, you look outside your organization instead of the talent already there within. I get the importance of “fresh ideas,” “current technologies,” and “best practices.” However, all those already exist within your organization. Fresh ideas that you ignore. Professionals you already hired who take it upon themselves to stay current in technologies. Leaders already there who are heavily invested in aligning process with best practices. Why do you need new people to do things that can already be done within your company? Moreover, the people in your organization have the institutional knowledge that these new, fresh people cannot match for many years to come. You are shooting yourself in the foot by doing this, yet you continue to do it repeatedly.
You also preferred to bring in outside consultants to set up new systems or do custom work rather than have your own people do it. Predictably, the consultants promised you the world, cashed out and departed, leaving your people to deal with over-engineered, under-performing garbage. Anyone can get fooled, but you continued to do this repeatedly. Moreover, you dismiss warnings and recommendation from your employees who are trying to avoid the convoluted messes that the contractors create and leave behind. I have seen lying, incompetent, unethical contractors get repeated business from you and your senior leaders, even after employees have exposed them.
Technology Over People
You rely on technology to solve people problems. During my time in your employ, I’ve watched you champion and (try to) roll out several different huge systems that would be the answer to all your problems. All have failed so far with high price tags, except for the most current one, and the jury is still out on that one.* Millions of dollars and possibly over a million people-hours poured into failed endeavors that did not take the human element into account.
The most common blind spot was, who will enter the data and how will it be entered? I cannot count the number of times a costly, complex system was provisioned only to discover after the fact that the needed data was nowhere to be found. Nobody in a position of authority ever seemed to check on that beforehand. People in the trenches, myself included, tried to warn you. You ignored those warnings. I cannot count the number of times I informed senior leadership of this problem only to have it ignored. I suspect this is because of the cronyism factor mentioned above. Obtaining data would have been difficult, complex work with a high likelihood of problems and failure. It was safer for the crony to ignore it and then blame the tech people after things failed. Better to have a bunch of underlings fired and keep his senior position.
You have integrity issues. There is no way to state that kindly. You have a great smile and winsome demeanor, but your actions do not match your words and the people who have worked for you a while know it. They know they cannot depend on your word and they therefore hedge their bets and do what is safest for them. After some time, their actions do not match their words either. You instilled that into them. Your religious statements in the workplace just underscore the big contrast between your words and your actions. The people under you do the same, starting with your senior leadership. They parrot the words, but then look to their own best interests. I have worked for an increasing number of managers and directors who mimic you. They have bibles on their desks, speak of God, pray before meetings … then manipulate, use, and discard their employees. You have created a culture of phoniness and deceit. If you cannot or will not live by the religious proclamations you make, then it is best not to make them at all, else you look like an even bigger hypocrite.
Look around you. People are leaving in droves. You keep championing bad ideas. Those who remain, other than the opportunists, are not engaged. Price’s Law states that the square root of the people in an organization do 50% of the work. That is about 40 people in the home office. What are the chances that some, or many, of those 40 have just about had enough and will be leaving soon? Are you retaining your star performers? Do you even know who your star performers are? I mean the ones who do the real work, not the ones who play a starring role in presenting themselves to you. Key employees are the first to leave when a company’s environment grows toxic. You are rolling the dice, Mr. CEO, and the dice are loaded. Quit pretending you are a visionary and learn to be a leader.
* The jury reached a verdict. The latest huge system was also a dismal failure costing millions of dollars and not solving the problem, only enriching the consultants. Why you ask? *drum roll* It was not able to access the needed data.