Senior business leaders mostly fear incompetence. Cue the trickle-down.

CEOs facing fear

Cool story here on “what CEOs are afraid of,” based on data from 116 CEOs and other executives (including 27 in-depth interviews afterwards). 116 isn’t a lot of people by any means — there are over 2 million CEOs/top executives in the United States alone —  but nonetheless, it’s interesting. Getting “an in-depth interview” with a CEO is a pseudo-big deal in the sense that they often are very pressed for time, and they don’t often sit down and really talk about their fears and emotions. (Sidebar: I have this theory about that. A couple of months ago I went to an F1 race and got to sit in a box with a bunch of CEOs. These are guys that wouldn’t give me the time of day if I tried to get a business meeting with them. But in that box, they seemed to really like me and we were shooting the shit and talking about life and drinking. Why? I think it’s because they spend so much of their week getting approached by people who need something from them or need an immediate answer or whatever … that the ability to sit down and really just talk about actual stuff is kind of refreshing.)

Anyway, what did we learn from the CEO interviews/survey/in-depth discussions?

  • The biggest fear among CEOs and top executives was incompetence, or being seen as an imposter.
  • That fear weakened their confidence and hurt their relationships with their senior team.
  • The next three were: underachieving; appearing too vulnerable; and being politically attacked by colleagues.
  • No. 5 was “appearing foolish.”

Stop And Think Section

Look at the top five fears that high-ranking people have. Let’s list them in order:

  • Incompetence
  • Underachieving
  • Appearing too vulnerable
  • Being politically attacked
  • Appearing foolish

No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 are very closely linked — basically, you don’t want to be exposed for things you don’t know but theoretically should know since you have ultimate control of the company (in essence).

So, 60 percent of a top executive’s fears relate to their concerns about their own abilities and how their own abilities are perceived down the line.

Think about what that leads to.

Rather than embracing ideas like “the future” and “strategic growth” — which can have a lot of road bumps and be perilous and fraught and lead to a lot of thoughts about incompetence — a lot of CEOs, because of this fear (or these series of fears), will get down in the weeds and work on things they control and understand.

You see this all the time in workplaces: a high-level person doing line edits or moving around photos or running accounting reports when the thought is, “Well, they should be strategic, right?” Of course they should, but they fear the unknown in that space. (They also confuse “strategy” with “operations,” but that’s a different topic.)

If you really think about CEO fears/concerns, then, you start to understand why the focus often moves away from “strategy” and towards “things I can control.”

Look at the other two concerns, then — appearing too vulnerable and being politically attacked.

If you assume those will be concerns of a senior leader across different generations, well then … hierarchy ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. People need it as a mechanism to prevent themselves from being attacked or having their vulnerability called out.

Here’s a rather disheartening paragraph from Harvard Business Review:

Many of their quotes are poignant and telling: “Greed. It controls everything.” “If someone told the truth they would be isolated.” “You’ve got to look virile.” “You know what? [A new CEO] was frozen by fear. He couldn’t think straight.” “He [the CEO] would publicly humiliate them, bully them [senior executives].” “We are competitive so there is less honesty.” Five executives in their 50s (four of them millionaires and all with stable families) admitted that they feared retirement.

How about No. 2 on that one?

“If someone told the truth they would be isolated.”

Jesus Christ, eh?

Here’s one thing HBR recommends as part of CEO selection:

Organizations should value emotional intelligence as a key executive attribute. One financial services company’s business unit CEO has great emotional intelligence, and in running the company over the last four years has created a healthy group dynamic to debate the unit’s strategy and ongoing decisions. The unit’s revenue and profits have grown.

I love love love the idea, but … it has no practical value. CEOs get selected based on (a) ability to generate revenue, (b) past ability to generate revenue, (c) political connections/relationships, and/or (d) tenure at company. It has nothing to do with emotional intelligence. That’s a soft skill. The business world doesn’t value soft skills. If it did, people would actually be hired because they know how to communicate. They’re not hired for that. Most companies can’t communicate worth a half-shit across their divisions. Again, communication is a soft skill.

Here’s another idea that’s slightly better:

Top team effectiveness programs should encourage executives to tell personal stories about key moments in their lives. This gives them insights on what drives their colleagues’ behavior, including their fears and motivations. One engineering company’s top team conducted an offsite at which its executives shared such life experiences (good and bad). They trusted one another far more and made much better decisions afterwards.

Agree with this because too often, “senior leadership teams” just sit and talk about “margins” and “revenue.” That’s important because it helps pay the rest of the staff, but if you want to do good work and be accountable to each other (instead of sniping each other all the time), you need to have a story behind it — or some kind of emotional connection. So sit in a fucking room and talk about your failures and your fears. See what happens. I bet you’ll be a higher-functioning team in about 2 weeks. Problem is, that meeting where you might discuss failure? Someone probably has to give a presentation on Q2 banner ad revenue.

It’s all about priorities, but when you start thinking about “what the people at the top fear,” you can learn a lot about “how things happen the way they do.”




Ted Bauer

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