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December 24, 2007

Don’t Be Stupid On Purpose. I’ve Tried It. It Didn’t Work.


There are two kinds of CEOs. OK, there are thousands of different kinds of CEOs. But the premise of this column requires there to be only two – ergo, there are only two.


The first kind confidently trusts his instincts, knows what he wants to do and does it. If he’s wrong, he sucks it up, takes responsibility and deals with the consequences.


The second kind is an opinion gatherer and a consensus builder. He seeks out as many opinions as he can about what he should do, on the grounds that it is arrogant to think he would have all the answers. He’s a listener. He makes people feel included in the decision-making process.


People like listeners until they’re not sure what should be done. Then they want the first guy – the one who knows what to do, or at least knows what he’s going to do. And if he ends up wrong, his employees can say, hey, don’t blame us! He didn’t ask our opinion!


I have a theory about all this. Would you like to hear it? Of course you would.


My theory is that the first kind of CEO – the one who trusts his own instincts – is the kind most people really want to work for. Now, if you ask them if they want their opinion considered, they’ll of course say that they do. But they don’t want the reason they’re being asked to be that the CEO doesn’t have a clue what to do.


I bring all this up because it seems to me that most CEOs will find they have made their worst decisions during those moments when they started doubting their own instincts and went against them – making a move they wouldn’t normally make because they started questioning themselves and their very concept of how the business should run.


Or is this just me?


I have always been the primary salesman for my company, but a few years back it started to seem like too overwhelming a task. I had always been able to sell enough to bring in business, but it started to seem like the job of sales was so challenging that someone needed to do it full-time. And if I did that, who would do the rest of the CEO’s job?


So when a salesperson came along who absolutely annoyed the hell out of me – someone I would never have considered hiring when I was trusting my usual instincts – I went with the momentary impulse that we would only succeed if I totally went against my normal instincts.


I was turning into Mr. Listener! Mr. Who-Am-I-To-Think-My-Way-Is-The-Right-Way?


So I tell myself: This saleswoman is the most annoying person I have ever met in my life. But she has good references and seems to have a good track record. The parts of her personality that make her annoying must also make her good at sales. I have to open my mind to her differentness! So I’ll lay out the goals and tell her to pursue them in her way, and I won’t interfere and make her do it my way.


Now the litany begins. Late for work her very first day. Out sick her entire second week. Shows up for work one day her third week, upset over a fight with her sister. Pulls a fellow employee into the kitchen, closes the door and offloads her feelings in tears for more than an hour. That’s two man-hours (OK, two woman-hours) lost forever.


Soon the quirks that I had originally attributed to that differentness, which we of course needed so badly because my instincts were so wrong, were becoming obvious evidence of her complete unreliability and incompetence.


She lasted three months – somehow. Four meetings with the boss about how she needed to improve made no difference whatsoever. I fired her.


So the moral of the story is to trust your instincts at all times? I don’t know about that. You’re not always right, and there are times when someone has a better idea than you do.


But if you start consciously going against what your instincts tell you because you’re having an extreme moment of self-doubt, I suggest you head out for ice cream, take the rest of the day off and make no decisions until your crisis of self-confidence has passed. In a more sober moment, you may realize that you almost did something intentionally stupid.


Don’t be stupid on purpose. Take it from me. It would be bad.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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