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Managing Executive Ego’s; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

January 30, 2010

I’ve worked at 8 different IT companies in my career and have seen many people in management roles. I’ll draw upon my career and the colorful stories for this discussion.

Managing Executives is a very sensitive issue.  This process is critical to the relationship and results with the press and Analysts.  Much of the time this is unseen externally, but the machinations exist under the covers for us to get to the discussion in an orderly manner.

Executives have many demands on their time and are pounded or pulled at from every angle, but they make the big bucks so butch up.  They might have come from a great meeting or one that they got machined gunned to death right before the analyst briefing.  Different people handle stress in different ways.

A common thread I’ve noticed is how much ego they bring, and how much control they have over it. Either way, the executive is the messenger and the content owner in the eyes of the audience.  It is our job to make sure they are best prepared, deal with the issues, understand the big picture and be as professional as possible to achieve results.  In some ways, we have to pull the strings and push the buttons behind the curtain to make successful analyst engagements happen.

As with the movie, I’ll take it in order.

THE GOOD

There are some executives that intrinsically get that analysts are deep thinkers, they have influence over customers, press and our reputation.  The media are rarely deep thinkers, but need to be managed and have influence, albeit less and less.

The really, really good ones know that the analyst can provide great input into the strategy and can point out any holes or landmines in our strategy.

The really, really, really good ones understand that it is about creating a relationship and that no matter how much influence they have at IBM, they can put that aside and get the message out and deliver value to an analyst discussion.

One key is they can manage their ego’s and those of the analyst (not the point of this post, but it is related throughout).  The executive I’ve linked above always comes off as you’re smarter than I am, although it’s rarely true.  He also accepts that criticism is part of the deal and doesn’t take it personally.  I’m not sure if it was his basic nature or that he came from sales (I attribute a big piece to the fact that he’s from the south and is more polite than most) but no matter what the case, his briefings always were a home run.

These executives are of course the best to deal with.  Some have higher maintenance levels than others, but when you know your big gun is going to deliver, you want to make sure his gun is as loaded as possible with bullets.

There are always disagreements over issues, but when an executive can put their ego aside and listen to input, everyone wins.  These people are very perspicacious.

boss or leader

THE BAD

Everyone has a bad day.  That can precipitate a less than optimal discourse.  I’ve worked with some who just weren’t as good as others at dealing with media and analysts, although practice usually improved things.  Some executives just shouldn’t be doing briefings as it isn’t their strength.

As described in the GOOD section, I’ve seen good executives come off distracted as they just got chewed out, or a multi-million dollar contract is about to be lost….it happens.

Some need more coaching and preparation than others, that’s our responsibility in communications.  I’ll discuss this in the Executive Preparation post, yet to come.

There are some that are not cut out for analysts briefings.  They should not be put in this situation.  There is always someone else on the team who is the one really best suited for dealing with the  analysts.  They may not be as good with a P&L, but they get the strategy and the relationship issues.  I use them as much as possible as it produces results on both the analyst and the company side.

Some just don’t get give and take.  I don’t put them in the ugly as they just won’t budge on the fact that their solution is what it’s going to be, but many times they can be right. It is better for the company for them to make the tough choices and stick with our side of the argument.  It rarely makes for a successful analyst engagement, but I defer when history shows that they didn’t take the analyst advice and the company or division benefits.  Again, this a time where a lieutenant is best for dealing with the analysts.

I’ll bring up human nature here as I’ve been in a situation where an executive who is generally great at working with analysts has a beef with a person for some reason.  In one case, both the analyst and the executive described the other person in to me terms of a deffication orifice.   Sometimes you just have to separate people and agree to disagree.  This situation is a challenge in communications.

Some of the bad are nitpickers.  The get caught up in details that are not relevant to the big picture.   They are a distraction and a lieutenant is again best.

Another category that could be BAD or could be UGLY are the quick triggers.  They fire off a response without considering the consequences.  The reason I put it into BAD instead of UGLY is you never know how it’s going to turn out.  It usually depends on the audiences’s response.  Either way it is high maintenance.  The quick witted exec’s can play this one well though, I’ll give them that.

I had to work with one entrepreneur who thought he knew more than anyone.  He managed to pick a fight over a lie that he was making a product (disk drive) that he bought from Control Data.  The reporters and analysts knew it and the company credibility was shot.  I had to tell one reporter not to equate me with him as I was not going to lie for him.

The last of the bad is the death by Powerpoint crowd.  They drone on and on and on and on without letting the analyst get a word in (when don’t analysts like to offer an opinion?) and everyone dreads these meetings.  Their objective is to get through the slide deck come hell or high water.

These executives are hard to work with, but sometimes you have to do it and get through it.

THE UGLY

These are the worst experiences of anyone’s communications career.  They also regularly put the company behind the curve with the relationship with the analyst.  I have only experienced this a couple of times, but they are burned into my memory as times I don’t want to relive.  Fortunately, I don’t work for or with any of these people anymore.

It almost every instance, it  is fueled by the over estimation by the executives of the importance of themselves.  These people also come in various flavors.head_up_ass

The Ugly Flavors

The Suits – These are people who have made it through the system via the Peter Principle. They pontificate, but aren’t well respected by anyone on either side and as with everyone in this category, are difficult to work with.  They are found out quickly by the analyst and it hurts the cause to come to the table with them.  As an example, in one company I was at one onsite briefing and the first thing the Suit (an executive named Corgel, who retired after being  in charge of the partner program.  This executive had the gall to send out expense control memo’s on travel and supplies, (what a hypocrite) while he was traveling on company expenses to see Notre Dame Football games.  Once, he called his assistant before a Forrester briefing to see if he could change his flight out so he could be home early and asked me to cut the analyst meeting short.  This was less than professional and was very hard to explain to the analysts why he obviously was blowing them off.

Another Suit (A former head of NetFinity and IGF named Callies) incident came up when I had landed one of the highest level press interviews of my career.  It was major media headline quality that anyone with half a brain would throw their best people and research at.  I had to pull the speaker (his lieutenant) from the Suit’s “staff” meeting.  The lieutenant was the best speaker I may have worked with and the Suit was one of the worst.  Said Suit wouldn’t let the speaker go to the briefing threatening him with “it’s only your job if you leave”, or I’m more important than anyone else.  Faux Pas Supremo.  He was close to the emptiest peter principled suits I ever worked with and he couldn’t get out of the way of his ego if he had a map.   As it usually happens with these types, I had to work around him to get the job done and got our name up in lights despite his efforts to torpedo any progress.

A different flavor suit flavor is described by Lou Gerstner in his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”  He describes an executive who wrote memo’s on how to deal with him including what type of gum to have and how to set the clocks (pg. 32).   These are unusually high maintenance people who want celebrity treatment.  There is a good song about this syndrome, watch the video here. Adios reality.

The Terrorists

These people give me nightmares.  Almost everyone has worked with or heard about these tyrants.  Nothing you can do is right, nothing is good enough and the analyst is wrong because they are right.  This is different than the BAD  situation from above.  The BAD executive there is making a tough choice not to go with the analyst view, but it is well informed choice.  The terrorist doesn’t really care about outcomes or just doesn’t know, rather it’s about what they want and their career, power and usually their insecurity.  Every company has one and the main IBM terrorist (who is known as much by one name, Sandy) has many dead bodies behind her quest to climb the ladder from PC’s to WebSphere to Tivoli to VP in Social Business Evangelism.  She made it up the chain and managed via the Dark Side as a corporate climber who both played favorites and pitted employees against each other.  We in communications had a support group for those who survived a term working for her and kept their job.  Once, I even wrote a press release for one of her female employees  just so she wouldn’t get fired, even though it never went out.  She personally set back diversity and female advancement more than any man or woman in the company.  I’ve rarely seen less respect for an executive.  When she got promoted, her employees were high fiving in the hallway that she was leaving.

No matter what the SJW’s try to redefine diversity rules to, the smart companies promote the best performers.

Feminists can screech as loud as they want, but they will never change this fundamental reality; men accord respect based on merit, and if girls want to play in the corporate world, they’ll have to obey the rules.

Sandy used to bring us through about 50 revisions of Powerpoint charts.  Most if not all changes were bad, but were done precisely as she had demanded.  We were later castigated with “why did you do this, I didn’t ask for it?”   She didn’t command much respect with the Press and Analysts who saw through this level (lack) of competency.  It was embarrassing to be in a press conference with her.  Although being a promoter of WITI,  she internally hurt the path for many women, and certainly made many question affirmative action and diversity policies at IBM.

Having to sweat through every meeting prior to and with an analyst is counter productive and has never lead to the results that could be achieved.

I’ve noticed that the terrorist is found out by press or analysts by many means.  Sometimes it is inconsistency in charts, sometimes it is through unusual calls and/or requests by A/R, many times it is through colleagues and sometimes it is through working with them enough times that your .

I’ve had one other terrorist who is now the VP of External Relations (note: the IBM CEO busted him down, how appropriate).  I called him to warn him of a problem that a reporter alerted me to.  It is expected that you let the person in charge of an area know if there is an issue so that they can deal with it as it is their turf.  I was being the good employee (in my first 4 months) so I left a voicemail explaining the situation and doing the hand off so that I wasn’t infringing on another person’s PR territory.

I got a call back from this type A New Yorker (a former Ed Koch employee) who lambasted me for my efforts.  Apparently, he was insecure as he kept reminding me that he was the boss and I was a nobody.  Let me point out that this was not a morale booster for a new hire who was trying to do a good job and be a team player.  Such is the life of working with terrorist Communications leaders.  I found out later that he regularly abused most people who worked there.  He deducted IQ points from those in the South which is another form of anti-diversity and discrimination.  Most just refused to help him or stayed away so as not to have to deal with the chewing out.  I’ve personally witnessed them confessing that they didn’t want to help him because of his temper.  What a shame.

Apparently, even Apple isn’t immune from these terrorists either.

Terrorist’s can come with unrealistic expectations.  I to this day am not sure how to handle them.  In both cases, I chose to move on and out as quickly as I could.

SUMMARY

To be effective with press and analysts, you must be able to manage the executives.  Executives come with many styles.  It is imperative that you learn the style and manage it for effectiveness.

Since people are different, one must adapt to each person.   Just hope you get the good, deal with the bad and escape the ugly.  As for the terrorist, I advise grabbing a parachute and jumping.  The plane is usually going to crash anyways.

Here is a quote that sums it up terrorists for me: “They are simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.” – Paul Keating

Update: SageCircle links here with a good post on improving executives.

For you Clint fans and movie buffs, here is the song and movie opening video.

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