Published: November 5, 2010
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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The One Thing Executives Hate More Than Anything in the World

What do executives hate more than anything else in the world? Surprises.

Don't surprise the exec!Even good surprises can be suspect, because now they must replicate them, but they don’t know how it happened in the first place. Very unnerving.

The inherent dynamic in an organization, though, absolutely sets up executives to be surprised. Being lower in the power chain, the people below them put a positive spin on situations, and then executives reinforce it by putting laser-like focus and pressure on problems while communicating little about all that’s going well.

For example, at one company where I was doing work, the CEO for the US division stayed fairly hands-off with an acquired business unit because the CEO of the BU consistently reported good news with just enough substantiation of challenges to power through operations reviews.

When the business started to backslide, the US division CEO dug deeper and experienced the unpleasant surprise that the underlying business challenges were bigger than he’d been told. He quickly fired both the BU CEO and the BU CFO and replaced them with insiders he had known for years.

The US CEO could handle the problems in the business better than he could handle the surprise, even though (technically speaking), no one had directly lied. The same positive spin that had helped build the business with customers didn’t work when it wound up hiding a bad surprise from an executive.

So stay on top of your business or function, and seriously consider raising the red flag sooner rather than later if something is starting to go downhill. Either way, you’re going to have a series of difficult discussions, but if you keep your boss from being surprised, there will be less pain and better planning to solve the problems.

If things are going well, and you’re working to raise the bar, make sure your boss knows about this, too, but don’t expect very much public or private acknowledgement unless your boss is the exception to the rule about communicating successes.

Likewise, if you experience a surprise in the form of a much better result than expected, analyze what made it happen. Was it better planning? Luck (be honest)? An investment from years ago that suddenly paid off? Then put some thought into how to reproduce it. Your boss will be eternally grateful.

 



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