Three diseases of C-level executives

Beware: Hubris, sycophantism and deformation professionnelle can spread from the corner office to IT

Why do good companies go bad?

Google, once the hoped-for slayer of the evil empire, has become a pretender to the dark crown. With its privacy issues, allegations of snooping and opposition to Net neutrality, Google seems to have turned its back on its "Don't be evil" motto. Facebook has spent so much time wrestling with privacy issues that it could take on Randy Orton in a WWE SmackDown. Microsoft, according to some critics, should spend more time listening to its customers and perfecting what it currently sells and less time trying to corner every market in Silicon Valley. Apple is widely seen as arrogant and dictatorial. How did these one-time princes of light succumb to the dark side? What were the leaders of these companies thinking?

Three even more troubling questions are: Does a corner office change one's view of the world? Do "cornerites" suffer from diseases that the likes of you and me are not prone to? Can these same diseases affect IT? The answer to all three questions, unfortunately, is, "Sometimes."

Not bound by geography, or even limited by profession, there are three maladies that can infect the high and the mighty. Defensive subordinates, as well as corporate up-and-comers, need to watch for the afflicted and avoid them at all costs. Let's look at each in uncomfortable detail.

Hubris, or arrogance, is the most common C-level disease. Feeling that you are so good you cannot possibly be wrong has brought down executives, politicians, even entire corporations. Hubris can lead smart people to make some incredibly dumb decisions. Arrogance was rampant in Enron, which went beyond thinking that whatever it did was right to the notion that any idea its leaders came up with should be lawful simply because Enron could make money with it. Unfortunately for Enron, it suffered from end-stage hubris, and expired. Not only does it no longer exist, but many of its former senior executives went to jail.

Some critics believe Microsoft suffers from this disease. They argue that Microsoft believes it is better at deciding what you need than you are, so paying attention to customers is a waste of time.

In an IT organization, hubris is often exhibited as a condescending attitude toward users. Symptoms include snide comments and jokes at the expense of those who earn the revenue that IT so willingly spends. More serious cases involve slow response to user requests, protracted studies of obvious improvements, and rigidity in scheduling, executing and approving changes.

The second C-level disease is sycophantism. This one manifests with executives surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, who tell them only what they want to hear. Sufferers of sycophantism equate disagreement with disloyalty. New or opposing ideas are not allowed, and those who voice them are banished. Many recent books on the George W. Bush administration tell of how loyalty, not just to the president but also to the president's ideas, was required. Dissenters were eventually replaced. In the business world, some people charge that the halls of Oracle are a dangerous place for those with nonconforming opinions.

A symptom of the yes-man disease in IT is an innovation-starved organization where reward and promotion depend more on whom you know or whom you agree with than on what you accomplish. Skill, hard work and dedication garner not praise but suspicion, while politics and cronyism too often replace rational decision-making.

The third disease is dformation professionnelle (professional deformation, or professional distortion), which is characterized by seeing the world only from the perspective of one's profession or organization and the conviction that one's profession or organization is more important than any other. The devastating effects of dformation professionnelle can be seen in the response of the ex-bankers who worked for the U.S. government during the great recession of 2008. They gave not a thought to the people in manufacturing and transportation, instead focusing on banks and bankers. So convinced were these ex-bankers by the fevers of professional distortion, they believed that the only sensible action was to bail out people like them, bankers with multimillion-dollar salaries. Their minds were uncluttered by thoughts of what they could do to support middle-class factory workers.

Banking is not the only industry so blinkered. The auto industry is equally dedicated to the idea that it is the one indispensable industry and subscribes to the notion that "what's good for General Motors is good for America" (though this popular misquote of former General Motors CEO Charles Wilson's statement is an inversion of what he actually said). When Facebook comes up with self-serving policies on privacy account deletion, its attitude seems to be, "What's good for Facebook is good for the user."

Professional deformation in IT is typified by a self-absorbed IT organization that fails to realize that its sole function is to serve others. Its staffers see themselves as providing things (computers, networks, applications) rather than services to the company. Sufferers can confuse being necessary to the functioning of the enterprise with being the center of it.

Containing the infection

While these diseases can attack anyone, the severity depends on the level of the infected. Infection of a junior employee might be easily contained, but C-level outbreaks are highly virulent. Prolonged exposure has been known to cause culture change and in some cases even fatality -- as in the outsourcing on an IT organization.

What can one do about these three diseases? Few successful people start out with these ailments. In almost every case, these diseases were acquired after the infected achieved a certain amount of success. In most cases, the roots of healthy management are still there, though perhaps buried and long hidden by the pathogens of perquisites. The challenge is to find a way to bring the lost antigens to the surface. When you discover how, let me know. I'm still looking.

George Tillmann is a former CIO and management consultant, and the author of The Business-Oriented CIO (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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