Did You Ever Wonder Why Senior Executives Fail?

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Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes - Lewis Grizzard

Did You Ever Wonder Why Senior Executives Fail?

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, ICF-PCC, SHRM-SCP


In the early 1990’s, Jack Welch gathered 20 of his brightest executives to capture best practices of what made them successful. These individuals were the future senior leaders of GE.[1]


This exclusive group spent weeks planning a seminar to be presented to GE’S global management team, to inspire the next generation of leaders and to impart the learning and experiences of Welch’s top people. Welch and his team evolved the objective: teaching the high potential (hi-pot) managers “The GE Way”.


Among the topics discussed was “Why Senior Executives Fail in GE” and is captured in one slide which many former GE employees once had hanging on their cubicle walls. As a one-time GE employee, these simple guidelines seem so self-evident.  But as often demonstrated, is not so at many other companies.  For many ex-GE employees, pointing out the glaring contrasts between the once stellar leadership principals at GE and their current employers is actually a cleansing and cathartic experience. Three glaring contrasts remind us we’re not in “Oz” anymore.


Bad Actor: Behavior contrary to corporate culture/values, etc.”  [2]At some companies, great emphasis is placed on living the company values, which often include “People” as the number one value. The message every employee may wear on his “values” badge card proclaims, “You’re important to us” Yet, recently, in one company I’m familiar with, a VP lacking theses important people skills, was hired and enthroned in the corner office (with a great view of  the local scenic bay coincidently). Apparently, his people skills were not high on the list of qualifications at hiring time.  This VP seldom stepped out of the executive suite and didn’t acknowledge employees by name- as one manager recently commented, “He only talks to 14 people”. This VP has been known to shout his demands without concern for others around him. In one case, he requested his secretary bring him a bottle of water in the following manner, shouting loudly: “Hey, lady. Get me water.” To add insult to injury, this request was made in a roomful of people, and not one other person was offered refreshment. In another case, the VP was touring the manufacturing area, where a strict no food or drink policy exists. The VP entered the area with an open cup of coffee. When this was pointed out, he rejoined: “No coffee, no Me”, leaving employees in stunned silence. Inopportunely, this VP has a two-year contract with the company, and according to highly placed, reliable sources, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Flawed Organization Concept: Unnecessary Layer …” [3] In this company, if you are a friend of the Company President, you are pretty much guaranteed employment for life. In the case of one person (a man), failure as a business area lead gave him entry into the world of business development, despite the fact that he had little business development (BD) experience. Since he was originally hired as a director, the company president decreed that he would become the “Deputy” Director of BD for a particular customer-based business. (Interestingly, none of the other businesses has a “Deputy” BD Director.) Since this person has an engineering background, rather than spending his time with customers and watching competitors, he has gone way overboard perfecting his chart making skills. He has created charts for BD process, new business investment funding, and the five-year plan. He also successfully coordinated a corporate loss analysis, ironically, conducted on one of Eddy’s major business failures. Eddy has aspirations to the “real” BD director’s job. But the company president is a wise man. If we are lucky, Eddy will return to engineering, where apparently, he was quite a star.


“Can’t Pull the Trigger: Talks a Good Game… Great Analysis but Doesn’t Get It Done.”  [4] Another manager was in charge of business development operations for many years. As such, he conducted multiple studies, analyses, and led several projects investigating the reasons for poor BD overall performance. The company wasn’t winning much new business. Time after time, the results of these many efforts showed that there was nothing wrong with the current, existing processes, procedures and policies. They were all intact, accessible, and aligned with industry standards across the board. The manager ruminated over these results, called many meetings, and created even more presentations on the topic. He even attached himself to a company wide study, led by several experts to dig further into this apparent conundrum. Each time, the results were fashioned into power point and some even found their way to the hands of senior management. Over and over again, the problem was traced to the same root cause: in that particular company, there were absolutely no consequences attached to not following policies, ignoring process and procedures, etc. I actually participated in a few of these exercises, and recall making the suggestion that if we connected following process to dollar figures to achieve the next process step, we may see better results in process adherence. While the manager agreed with me, he could never bring himself to enact that policy. I had been with the company for eight years at the time, and the company still suffered from a lack of process adherence as well as a dire lack of upcoming new business.


The unfortunate conclusion is, although much of Jack Welch’s work has been published and studied, there are still companies that are satisfied to make it up as they go along, and experience their bookings, sales, profit and cash slide downward: mostly due to bad actors, flawed organization concepts and those who “can’t pull the trigger”. Jack Welch clearly tied executive and company performance to faithfulness and adherence to GE values; saw certain doom for those who could not incorporate those values into their work performance. GE’s brightest minds gathered to clarify what good leadership is about; the power point slide addressing why executives fail makes clear what leadership is not... This is why that slide is still hanging on the wall in my office today.


The takeaway: If you are self-aware enough to know you demonstrate more than of these characteristics, now is the time to rid yourself of this management “style”.  If your boss or senior executives show more than one of these traits, now is the time to start looking for a new job.


“Leaders are people who can pursue a path that is seemingly nonsensical or even dangerous to everybody else. Common sense tells us that nobody needs a leader to take the path that’s intuitive; people would do that on their own. Therefore, since the leader recommends a path that is seemingly illogical to the “average” person, we can conclude that a leader must be either: 1. So smart that nobody can share the vision or 2. A nitwit.”

-Scott Adams


-       Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, ICF-PCC, SHRM-SCP

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate  Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years’ experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area. Today, she dedicates herself to helping good leaders get even better through positive behavior change.