Looking At The CEO From The Bottom Up . . .

Dec. 21, 2004
. . . is an awful experience by any definition.

For 24 years I was either president or chairman of my company. So I hope I will be forgiven if I admit I had a more glamorous image of how I appeared to my companys rank-and-file employees than I actually did. I suspect that all chief executives have similarly faulty vision when viewing themselves. We cant see our bottoms from where we sit, but thats the part of our anatomy our employees see most of the time. And, while my bottom happens to be one of my biggest assets, it definitely is not one of my best. Since I am no longer CEO, my office no longer is located on the executive floor. I toil among the worker bees, many of whom used to seek my approval for their programs and initiatives. Last year, when I was CEO, they sought my counsel and advice. They also laughed at my jokes. This year they seek my silence. Whatever wisdom and perspective I had when I sat in the "Ivory Tower" seems to have evaporated in the "bowels" of the business. Now that people see my face instead of my bottom, I have lost some of my former omniscience. Looking at CEOs from my current perspective, I must admit that they appear much more awesome. What has genuinely surprised me, however, is the effect this "bottoms-up" perspective has on perfectly normal, rational, and talented human beings -- particularly when they are in an executives presence. I had no idea, for example, how -- as CEO -- my most mundane request for information created panic in the accounting department. Or how an innocuous query about a budget line item raised publishers blood pressures to life-threatening levels. Today, the same questions I asked last year inspire yawns. No panic. No adrenaline surges. No anxiety jolts. Im the same person asking the same questions to the same people, and I get zip reaction on the employee Richter scale. Now Im just one of the guys. My associates are remarkably solicitous. They ask me if my wrinkles hurt. They send me estimates for generic funerals. And they are patient when I tell them about the lifetime guarantees Ive outlived. Inside all chief executives are annoying alter egos who keep asking embarrassing questions like, "How did you get this cushy job when there are so many others who are better qualified for it than you?" Or, "How long are you going to be able to con people into believing youre as good as your rsum says you are?" What most CEOs really are not cognizant of is the psychological effect of their position on the people below them on the company totem pole. Its surprising how their title, their office furniture, and their office location make them appear wiser, more capable, more authoritative, and more right than they ever were before. Its also surprising how these images transform ordinary people into "special" people. People whom fellow employees once talked to are now talked about. People they once worked with become people they now work for. People they once considered peers are now seen as privileged. Their big salaries, lucrative stock options, rich bonuses, and special perks are seen as exorbitant, obscene, and undeserved. Yes, the bottom-up view of chief executives inspires awe. But I hasten to remind you that the adjective awful has conflicting definitions. It can mean any of the following: (1) inspiring awe, highly impressive; (2) causing fear, dreadful, terrifying, and appalling; (3) full of awe, reverential; (4) very bad, ugly, unpleasant, like an awful joke; (5) great, like an awful bore. Speaking of awful jokes and awful bores, most chief executives never quite know when they are being one or the other, or both, because the people closest to them wont say. By their silence, they encourage top-managements jokes. Are you an awful bore? Consider the following:

  • Chief executives who constantly talk about themselves when talking to people who are concerned about their own problems are bores.
  • Chief executives who light up a room when they leave are bores.
  • Chief executives who have nothing to say and keep saying it are bores.
  • Chief executives who talk when you want them to listen are bores.
  • Chief executives who isolate themselves from rank-and-file employees are bores.
And so are former chief executives who write about other chief executives. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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