Resources: Blog Post

July 31, 2015

A ‘superstar’ executive with an ego – Mission impossible?

Ian's Morning Musing image

I am sure many CHROs have asked their executive team, “are we a team of stars or a star team?” I am certain that many of us have posed this question simply to generate a discussion about executive team behaviour and collaboration, endeavouring to elicit some form of reflection.

Mission possible imageAs a sidebar, all too often the CEO will make it clear that he/she wants a star team, yet continues to make unique arrangements with each executive separately. Apart from this complication, even referencing the term “stars” can stroke the egos of many executives. And, unless you are a company at the very top of the competitive league tables, the very notion that your executive team is full of stars is absurd.

Last week, I made reference to the organizational value of “superstars,” and some interesting debate has ensued about evaluating “out of the park” performance versus “very good” performance. Regardless, one needs to be careful with such performance language, particularly if the CEO is edging some to the exit sign. Every organization wrestles with this language/performance evaluation challenge. This week, however, the focus of the original question is to engage executives on the simple words “team” and “stars.”

I have always found it interesting how different executive team members are and how meeting their individual needs can be somewhat of an art form. There are those who have brilliant self-confidence and consistently outperform — year after year. Often, they can do it without great fanfare. These talented folks are the CEO’s dream. Knowing they have the CEO’s total support, all the while being suitably compensated and professionally challenged, they simply “get on with the job,” regardless of any turmoil around them. They are keen and astute observers of executive gamesmanship, but rarely get sidetracked. Deep down, they are comfortable in their own skin, not gripped by insecurity, and they are realistically optimistic about a career change that could unexpectedly occur. There is always a role for an outstanding leader whose company is acquired. Such talent does not grow on trees.

Sadly, with many others, the challenge is to manage egos and/or insecurities. In my experience, these two issues are the primary reasons why there are too few star teams. I am not a psychoanalyst by any means, but to state the obvious: we live in the midst of a very competitive society. At a young age, we ask our own kids “what was your grade?” Then we ask about Billy’s grade. In sports, we want to win. If this city ever produces a winner in professional sports, we shall have insanity. What salary you are making, how fast you are moving up the corporate ladder, what title you carry, where you work, where you live — and many more — are the symbols of success by which we judge. So, competition around the corporate table is just an outcome of how we have been conditioned. That does not magically disappear when the CEO demands that a group of executives become a star team.

I found this quote by a former managing director of McKinsey & Company both insightful and incredibly worrisome: “The real competition out there isn’t for clients, it’s for people. And we look to hire people who are first, very smart; second, insecure and thus driven by their insecurity; and third, competitive.”

As Steven Berglas pointed out in an HBR article, here we have the classic “insecure overachievers.” Mixing inferiority and superiority complexes together is pretty potent. I can think of many occasions where a senior executive has asked me whether the CEO likes him/her. I have always answered with, “that’s a strange question, why do you ask?” Often they are desperate for re-assurance and praise.

Is it possible that manipulative CEOs withhold both because they fully understand that these leaders are driven to excel? The sad reality is that some simply “flame out,” or become so toxic that they need another place to satisfy that inner need to succeed. I think we have many case studies where the CEO succession practice is to have executives pitted one against another – with a winner “take all” outcome. I think most people would be hard-pressed to successfully argue that such organizations have a star team.

Let us acknowledge that it is very difficult to manage the egos of the superstars around the executive table. I was reminded of an article citing a number of celebrities who let the hype and hubris feed their ego, which in turn damaged their credibility and, in some measure, their careers. Mel Gibson would be one example. Charlie Sheen is another, more recent – and perhaps better – example.

Much as we might think corporate life is a little “Hollywood’ from time to time, executives who are always looking for attention or trumpeting their success wherever and whenever possible – or worse still, those that take credit and/or praise for other people’s work – can quickly disrupt harmony and collegiality around the table.

The most recent sports analogy might be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron is undoubtedly the greatest basketball player on the planet, but that fact, along with the others on the team, did not produce a star team that won the championship. Phil Jackson, one of the greatest basketball coaches in history has said, “the NBA has made a real issue about really making these superstars the premium that everybody wants to go to. That’s their calling card and their marketing tool. But the coaches at the other end of the sphere are trying to make everybody on the team, even nine, 10, 11, 12, just as important, and have a real role that’s meaningful.”

Whether you have star players or a star team, creating harmony and getting everyone to contribute is the ultimate goal, notwithstanding all the unique personalities. Pretty simple to accomplish, is it not?

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Ian Hendry is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing today’s business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac Assocation.

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