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  D.F.'s Column Archive

August 9, 2006

CEOishness Avoidance Cliches


Many years ago, when the Earth was young and I was still a full-time business reporter, I was assigned to do an interview with the CEO of a local hospital. On the phone with his assistant, finalizing the details of my visit, I received assurances from said assistant: “You’ll love him. He’s not CEOish at all!”


Not CEOish? I mentioned to my editor that I was presumably heading out to an interview with a non-CEOish CEO.


“Him, not CEOish?” my editor replied. “He is the definition of CEOish.”


Wait! A definition of CEOish would be helpful here, and I’m not sure this particular hospital chief is able to provide the definition simply by walking around. Although he could give it a run.


During my interview with the non-CEOish CEO, I learned:


  • He really enjoyed just getting around and meeting the staff.
  • He found the process of interacting with his board invigorating and rewarding. Really really.
  • He wanted the hospital to embrace a mission of serving the community, not just making its numbers, and oh, of “giving back.”
  • He liked to “empower” people.
  • He wished he could improve his golf game.


What makes a man non-CEOish? None of the stuff this guy said, that’s for sure. But perhaps the better question is: Why are so many CEOs so determined not to be CEOish? What’s so bad about being CEOish?


It must present some sort of problem, because I’ve seen some CEOs go to some rather absurd lengths to avoid seeming like CEOs – in some cases trying so hard to avoid CEO clichés that they become clichés in their own right.


CEOishness-avoidance clichés.


The most common of these is to insist on working at a cubicle. Just like the proletariat! I get no special treatment just because I’m the head cheese. This seems like a nice gesture, but it rarely lasts because CEOs and employees quickly discover something about each other. Neither wants to hear what the other has to say.


Occasionally, the CEO has to fire someone, or at least discuss someone’s shortcomings. The employees start to notice that every time Wofford J. Dingelsplat III steps away from his cubicle and heads outside with the HR director, it’s only a matter of minutes before someone’s going to get it. Besides, the employees want to rip the CEO too! It’s an employee tradition. And it’s kind of hard to do when he’s sitting three feet away from you separated only by a six-foot-high metal divider.


Gosh, boss, thanks for jumping into the mosh pit here with the rest of us slugs, but we all chipped in and bought you a door. Stay behind it, would ya?


Not content with that effort, the CEO-in-denial tries doing the dirty jobs. You know, son, I worked my way up by getting my hands dirty. No job is beneath me. Not even yours! Now move over and make room for me on the line, because I can sort brackets with the best of ‘em. One. Two. Three. Did I count that one with the sticky stuff on it? Let’s start over. One, two . . . oh, there’s my Blackberry going off, I’ll be right back, son . . .


CEOs in lesser states of denial may try the staged see-how-accessible-I-am event, usually hand-picking eight-to-12 employees who are honored beyond all imagination to be invited for doughnuts with the boss. With Christmas-morning-type looks of excitement on their faces, the fortunate few are led by the executive entourage to a room where the CEO sits waiting for their questions, any questions, any questions or comments at all (make them constructive, now), because the CEO’s doors are always open – at least until the investment bankers show up in 45 minutes and he needs to talk about grown up things they wouldn’t understand.


Look, if you’re going to be a CEO, be a CEO! Wear cufflinks. Sit in a big leather chair. Say “strategically aligned competencies” and stuff like that. Quit trying to act like you’d know what to do at an American Legion Hall. Your objective is not to make the employees think you’re just like them. It’s to make good executive decisions so they’ll have their jobs and your shareholders will make money.


Oh, and when you do, they’ll still make fun of you! Welcome to the top job. There’s a reason only one person is allowed to have it. That’s as many stuffy CEOish types as we can handle.


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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