Every corporate suite has two types of executives. First, there are the value creators: those who believe in themselves, in the potential of others, and in their ability to create a better organization. They don’t regard themselves as omnipotent; rather, they know that it is human to be imperfect, make mistakes, hold biases and occasionally be fooled by others. Consequently, value creators take proactive steps to safeguard against falling victim to their own shortcomings and the ill intentions of others. Value creators nurture and grow human capital.
Conversely, value destroyers are executives who fundamentally seek to seize value from those who create it and to secure their own career advancement, accolades, power, money or special privileges. With these executives, the focus is on them and their short-term needs rather than on achieving the company’s long-term strategic goals and results. Ultimately, they jeopardize the organization’s integrity and interests. Value destroyers often engage in counterproductive back-channel gossip, character assassination, political maneuvering and risky business practices. Value destroyers embezzle human capital.
The Role of the CEO
Organizations need good executives, and at the top of this leadership group is the CEO. While CEOs have multiple responsibilities, their primary objective should be to protect and promote the success of their companies. To that end, CEOs can arm themselves against value destroyers in various ways.
First, they must remain self-aware and combat their own tendencies toward destructive self-interest. Some CEOs look to their peers or HR departments for coaching to preserve their objectivity. Others document and share self-reflections with someone they trust in order to gain insights into their own behavior. The most effective strategy is to commit to an ongoing development process, ideally with a professional whose expertise is working with CEOs and senior executives.
Second, it is important for CEOs to search constantly for evidence of value destroyers. Self-interest at its best is a motivating force that drives individuals to aspire to and achieve success. But in the wrong hands, this otherwise positive element can be converted into a destructive force that undermines the integrity of the organization. Identifying value destroyers with precision and speed is paramount.
Third, CEOs need to create an environment of transparency, candor and straight talk. They can do this by setting a good example themselves and by not tolerating hidden agendas or doublespeak. Any time the CEO is introduced into a private conversation about another executive without that third party being present, the ground is laid for potential misconduct and corrosive effects.
If the CEO is to get involved, his or her role needs to be limited to bringing clarity to the real issues and reaffirming expectations. The CEO should engage in complete transparency in the course of bringing all parties to the table. People cultivate their relationships by working on problems together.
Further, it is essential for CEOs to insist on accountability. If a team member is consistently at the root of problems, then that team member should be coached and mentored. If there continues to be a problem, then the CEO should hold that team member accountable and insist upon consequences, which may include separation from the organization. When there are no consequences, employees lose respect for those in charge, and a low level of performance becomes the norm.
Finally, CEOs should provide a unifying force and common goals. The responsibilities of executives are paramount, and in most instances, no individual can get the job done without the commitment of others. CEOs play a key role in identifying those strategic priorities and formulating appropriate goals. For a diverse team of executives, the selected goal must be complex enough to be compelling and unifying. Working on “stretch goals” highlights everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and requires them to be transparent in the course of their participation. All of this promotes trust, builds cohesiveness and challenges people to work out their differences for the success of achieving desired goals.
Further, those who can’t make the leap with stretch goals — or choose not to — usually self-select out. For this reason, stretch goals are powerful tools that CEOs can use to ward off the contaminating influence of value destroyers.
Seeds of Discontent
Politics, regardless of type, thrive in particular environments. When common goals and desired results remain unclear, the climate becomes ideal for sowing seeds of political discord. And when leadership doesn't insist on accountability and candor in addressing personal agendas, the roots of politics dig deeper.
To survive the perils of corporate politics and lead their companies toward sustainable progress, CEOs must create a system that identifies weaknesses and simultaneously create an environment in which destructive political forces wither and die.