Editor’s note: Today’s Guest Opinion is from Rich Campbell of Sockwell & Associates in Charlotte.Arrogance. Dishonesty. Forgetfulness. Greed. Resume falsification. We have seen them far too often in corporate leaders once venerated for their ability to create shareholder value.
While Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco made headlines, other highly respected organizations were also scarred by their leaders’ lapses of integrity:
- TheStreet.com discovered that Bausch & Lomb’s CEO, Ronald Zarella, had falsely claimed for years to have an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business
- Veritas Software’s CFO, Kenneth Loncher, claimed an accounting degree from Arizona State University and an MBA from Stanford when his only degree was from Idaho State University
- Ram Kumar, the former Director of Research for Institutional Shareholder Services, which recently advised shareholders on the HP-Compaq merger, never completed the law degree he claimed from the University of Southern California
Are these examples anomalies? Or, are we facing a corporate leadership crisis? In a recent CNN/USA Today Gallop Poll, respondents pegged executive greed and corruption as the top reasons for the nation’s weak economy. What must change?
What is a leader?
We like an insightful article by Father William J. Byron, the former President of Catholic University and Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Ethics at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. “What a Leader Is” examines the central question posed in a Harvard Business Review article by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones: “Why should anyone be led by you?” Father Byron suggests that it mandates a response from every individual in a leadership position. How will today’s CEOs and C-level managers respond?
In 20-plus years of recruiting senior executives, we have heard many answers. They range from “I am the CEO and have the ultimate responsibility” to “I have access to more information” to “I believe that I make the right decisions” to “I own the business.” But the most successful leaders use the word “we” and demonstrate personal characteristics that are similar to those described by Goffee and Jones.
Even though leadership traits and styles can change over time and vary with the immediate circumstances, four qualities are quintessential:
- Leaders let their weaknesses show. It makes them human and approachable.
- Leaders trust their intuition.
- Leaders display “tough empathy.”
- Leaders understand themselves — their unique skills and experiences.
Cutting own salaries?
Alan Weber, founding editor of Fast Company, believes the real challenge for CEOs is to close the widening chasm that distances them from their employees. He suggests that they must draw closer through decisive actions that include:
- Cutting their own salaries — and those of other top managers — before laying off employees
- Going where people do the real work — making sales calls, punching in for a shift, and answering the customer support lines
- Most importantly, taking responsibility.
Last year, when Harvey Kraemer, the CEO of Baxter International, learned that dialysis filters manufactured by a recently acquired company had possibly caused several patient deaths, he publicly apologized, took a huge write-off, and asked his board to reduce his bonus by 40 percent.
Weber points out that Kraemer clearly and immediately demonstrated authenticity, accountability, and integrity to employees, customers, and the public. Where would some of our fallen corporate giants be today if their leaders had done so?
Harvard’s Rakesh Khurana examines a different angle in “Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs.” His research shows that many corporations have increasingly hired leaders (mainly recycled CEOs) who can impress stock analysts instead of those who have concrete industry or organization knowledge. The quest for such leaders has bred misconduct, incompetence, and abuse.
When more boards ask, “Why should we be led by you?” instead of “Who do you know on Wall Street?” we will almost certainly see a resurgence of true leadership.
Rich Campbell is a graduated of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.S. in Business Administration. For 10 years prior to his joining Sockwell, Rich worked in sales and marketing in the print and information management industry. Founded in 1982, Sockwell & Associates specializes in the recruitment of senior-level management. Its practice spans a range of industries and functional disciplines. Clients include Fortune 500, mid-cap and emerging companies, as well as family-owned businesses and non-profit organizations.