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Crisis Management: When The Crisis Is The CEO

 

It’s hard out there for a CEO.

Recently, we witnessed a week’s worth of drip-drip-drip coverage about Yahoo chief Scott Thompson’s resume. The gaffe culminated in Thompson’s resignation after only four months on the job. But the controversy, on the surface, wasn’t about whether he’d faked an advanced degree, or falsely claimed Ivy League credentials. No, this was about his undergraduate major.

The headline-making departure last month was that of Best Buy chief Brian Dunn. Maybe it wasn’t surprising, but it was breathtakingly abrupt, amid unsavory and unsettling rumors of “improper conduct.”

Granted, each of these, and other “CEOs behaving badly” situations was really about company performance. And in Thompson’s case, the growing crisis wasn’t handled well. But it’s obvious that the stakes are higher than ever for the head guy. Controversy over executive pay, diminishing public confidence, and the news cycle have conspired to make even seemingly trivial missteps a big story.

The implications of the new, more perilous chief executive role aren’t lost on those who recruit and install the top guns, or on professional communicators. Corporate boards will redouble efforts to troubleshoot potential problems in advance. And it’s only right that chief executive prospects should be vetted with the zeal and rigor of (most) presidential candidates. Every weakness, peccadillo, or hint of scandal can, and will, come out.

At a time when a strong, communications-savvy CEO is more needed than ever, corporate strategists and PR specialists will become even more cautious about putting the head guy out there. A deep and visible executive bench is a strong communications strategy, and, these days, good risk management. But it’s more likely that access to the executive team will simply become scarcer for journalists.

The bottom line, of course, is that most of the responsibility lies with the chief executive. The occupant of the corner office needs to acknowledge his/her shortcomings, seek the best advice from those outside the inner circle, and be aware of when a problem or crisis has grown beyond their capability to address it. A terrific example of the “new” CEO who actively seeks counsel around his own leadership development is that of Mark Zuckerberg, as detailed in a recent New York Times piece. Yet, Zuckerberg, who will be 28 next week, is an anomaly even for a technology company.

The imperial CEO is long dead, and well he should be. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the guys who can generally pull a ripcord on a golden parachute and go home to a fat bank account. But it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far from the command-and-control days. The margin for error is so thin that you have to ask yourself, at some point, who’s going to want this job? When accountability turns into scapegoating, it’s a losing proposition for everyone.

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