Self-criticism is not a management core competency. Just read the business papers and see how few top executives, perhaps excluding only the Japanese, stand up and take responsibility for their mismanagement failures. In our part of the world, blame gets minimized, redefined, denied, and passed down to the next guy on the totem pole. My friend, Dr. Mike Schneider, used to say, “The last guy out the door broke the window in the Men’s Room too.”
The problem is that the Brightest and Best do not always make it to the top. There was a hypothesis around in the Seventies called, “The Theory of Ultimate Incompetence.” It said that we all get promoted until we hit a level where our performance is adequate enough to stay there, but not good enough to be promoted to the next higher position. This means that eventually, we all end up in the job at which we are the most incompetent. It’s scary, but there’s some truth in it.
What I’ve done over the years (while nursing a business career that rocketed me up to the middle) is to collect the signs and sayings of people in high positions who might be considered incompetent. These are the people who rely on jabs and japes, and the occasional old saw, to intimidate people into following them, because they lack the skills to lead. As I said once of an old boss, “He couldn’t organize a two float parade.”
Okay, here are the things to listen for. One slip alone need not alarm you, it could have been a mistake, and we all have bad days. It’s when you hear two or three or more of these that it’s time to sharpen up the resume and get far, far away from anybody who would say:
1. “At my level:” This self-important observation connotes that the speaker considers himself significantly higher than the listener(s), and expects premium treatment. It is often a prelude to an expression of outrage at some trivial indignity that we lesser mortals have to put up with each day: Like bussing one’s own tray in the company cafeteria.
2. “Me, me, me, and you:” I knew one business hero who skipped from company to company taking credit for a string of successful turnarounds and programs. He used to relish telling business war stories of his successes at his last employer: IBM. My old boss, Frank Keaney, another IBM veteran, once said: “IBM never packaged anybody out the back door for doing too good a job.” Frank called it dead on. The hero lasted until he encountered the inevitable “Bad Quarter” that brought the world down around his ears. He responded by firing the sales manager and gently chiding himself for getting so involved in major problems that he let this one issue escape notice. In other words, when things went right: He did it. When things went wrong: Somone else did it. And, someone else got fired for it. Eventually , they caught up with him.
As my lawyer friend Stan Driban so aptly summed it up: “The Queen of Hearts never screamed, “Off with my head!”
3. “Look right, look left, one of you won’t be here in six months:” It is hard to believe that any idiot would actually say this, but I have heard it used more than once. This is used almost exclusively by intimidators who hope that their words will suffice to get people moving forward where their leadership and example may not. It is on the same level with: “The terminations will continue until morale improves.” Every person I have ever heard use this phrase has turned out to be an incompetent. There are no exceptions.
4. “I never had a bad day:” This is a variation of the old, “I don’t have ulcers, I give them.” It is also an indication that the speaker is not being honest with the audience; and if they lie in things small, they may lie in things big. Everybody has a bad day. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s his or her call. They just shouldn’t be a jerk about it.
5. “I’m only one guy:” This is a pure cop-out. It means: ”Although I screwed it up totally (see also ‘FUBAR”: U.S. Army acronym for this phenomena: ‘Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition’), it is not my fault. I was too busy doing other more important things than to meet this obligation. Somebody should have seen my predicament and helped me.”
Boo! Hiss! Off with his head!
6. “I wasn’t informed:” I think the difference between a junior executive and a senior executive copping out, is that the junior executive says, “I didn’t know.” The senior executive says, “I wasn’t informed.” Both are outrageous attempts to evade blame and, frankly, neither works.
7. “It’s the little people:” Unless you’re a shoe manufacturer employing elves, don’t ever thank the “little people.” It’s supercilious, condescending, and offensive. The staff should rise up like the peasants in those old Frankenstein films and with burning torches, pikes, and rakes drive anyone who says this from the corporate village.
8. “Our treasure is our people:” It used to be that some version of this worked, until people realized they were being laid off (“downsize, right size, capsize” as the Brits say) to protect margins, profits, and – oh yes – executive bonus plans. We all know they would have us little buggers on the street in ten minutes if the law permitted it, and if it meant another 15% in the bonus pool.
9. “We:” Mark Twain said that the first person plural pronoun “We” should only by used by kings, editors, and people with tape worms. After a 40+ year career in business, I would add pregnant women, anyone with multiple personalities, and people carrying a mouse in their pocket. It is a pompous affectation and unless you’re using it in the exclusive sense of “We won!”, drop it from your business vocabulary and mistrust anyone who uses it.
10. “My work here is done:” You only hear this from someone who is trying to get the hell out the door to a new job before the one he has now collapses down around his ears. This is an explanation with no content. It is just an empty term used by a departing manager to suggest he’s done a wonderful job, is now off to bigger and better things, and whatever happens here next week is the new guy’s fault (including that broken window in the Men’s Room).
11“And that’s not a shot at you:” This is an “adult” version of the obnoxious child’s hokey mantra: “I was only kidding.” It’s used to deflect criticism for an over-the-top and unwarranted, often public, assault on another person’s dignity or competence: “Your program so is fouled up and mismanaged it could only have been conceived by a stumbling, bumbling, incompetent boob! And that’s not a shot at you.” The object of this tirade is supposed to feel much better after the concluding modifier.
12. “Trust the system:” This one has almost a quasi-religious element to it. It means that you should totally believe in the system, although you have seen it fail for others countless times, and have no reason to believe that the system is more than a loose collection of ill thought-out and often contradictory management policies and practices. It is right up there with: “Use the old, frayed rope ladder to cross the canyon. It is perfectly safe.” This is where you get it in writing.
That’s it. Now think of the executive that you want to evaluate. Start with 100%. Deduct ten points for any of these placebo expressions that you have heard him or her use. You might even make it twenty points if you feel strongly about it.
Any boss who still scores at 90% or higher is destined for the Business Hall of Fame.
Anything over 80% puts them ahead of the curve and indicates an interest in becoming a decent and responsible manager.
A score of 70%, like the old “Gentlemen’s ‘C’,” that Ivy League colleges awarded in the Fifties to n’eer-do-wells, indicates that the boss may get by, but frankly, it’s doubtful and, at best, a survival plateau. If it’s a family business, they give guys like this. who know too much. a nice corner office with windows and tell them to watch out for the return of the glaciers.
Anything below 75% means the Final Accounting is closer than you think; the outlook is devastation and disaster both for the boss and for those around him.
If your executive’s score is low, and your gut feel says “bad”, is there any cause for Hope that the situation can be turned around? Oh sure, there’s always Hope, but it’s dimming fast.
My advice is: Head for the hills.