Does the C in C-Suite Stand for Complacent?

By David Baker written about 9 months ago

I recently purchased a new car and, like most new vehicles, almost everything in it is electronic. For example, if I leave the door open and my battery gets low, the car sends a text to let me know, or if I’m close to needing an oil change, my dashboard tells me every time I start the car. Once the oil actually needs to be changed, it moves to a more insistent mode with an impossible to miss beacon that won’t turn off until I pay for the oil change, because now it really means it.

This mode of automation exists in many areas of my life; my computer updates on its own as the manufacturer decides, all of our software is now leased monthly and updates automatically, and many of my financials transactions just occur each month based on a long ago provided permission. In the absence of saying “stop,” charges just happen; everything from the Dollar Shave Club to the vegetables delivered to us every week. The strategy is based on inertia; the belief the reoccurring transaction will be accepted until there is a shock to the system and we wake up to a reality we had not signed up for—like a five-year supply of razors.

And it’s a good strategy. Because in the absence of an intentional decision to change, things just keep occurring as we slip into a type of comfortable sleepwalking.

That is, unless there is someone or something there to wake us up and hold us accountable.

While our car and computer can be set to regularly update themselves, people don’t have this opportunity, and usually it falls to the boss to help those working for them “wake up and update.” This system of cascading accountability works fine, as long as the CEO holds their direct reports accountable, who in turn hold theirs accountable and so on and so on. But what happens if that system stops and the CEO does not hold their direct reports accountable? The answer is complacency.

It’s easy to become complacent when we lack challenges, during periods of sustained growth, when the surroundings—and even the challenges—can be framed as success. In this context, the need for “updates” don’t seem urgent, after all business is good and profit margins are strong, why rock the boat? However, as soon as markets become more competitive, margins erode and profits start to dissipate, then challenges arise, talent begins to jump ship and people start to worry. What was once smooth sailing begins to look like rough seas, as the boat starts to rock and the need for accountability becomes apparent.

Often, however, this need for an accountability update is met with a well-patterned silence, even in the C-Suite, where it is needed most. If the C-Suite has become quiet, there is no update mechanism. There is no one above them, who is willing to help shock the system and get things back on track.

My experience suggests that, as Tom Clancy would say, this is a “clear and present danger,” especially for long tenured leaders and entrepreneurs who have grown a business since inception.

These leaders need to be especially vigilant to guard against complacency overtaking the need to hold themselves and those they work closest with accountable.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Temptations of a CEO, suggests there are five reasons a CEO—and I suggest all senior leaders—may fall into this danger zone:

  1. Status: Valuing one’s status more than results.
  2. Popularity: The desire to be popular interfering with holding others accountable.
  3. Certainty: The need to be certain above providing clarity.
  4. Harmony: Wanting to live in harmony more than risking productive conflict.
  5. Invulnerability: The need to be invulnerable over that of building trust.

When any of these occur, if those in the C-Suite are transparent and committed to holding each other accountable, it will act just like the auto update mechanism in today’s cars and self-correct. If not, the pattern of silence, often accompanied with inaction, will lead to a slow journey of decline.

If you are approaching this danger zone and would like to hear more about reversing the accountability stalemate, send me an email and I would be happy to share some of my journey and a paper I have written on transitioning from silence to stewardship.