During my career I have worked with many colleagues who have inspired and motivated me, some who made me laugh and many who made me proud of them, but I have also had a few of them who drove me crazy. Some were managers (see “There is nothing worse than a nervous boss” posted August 15th, 2011) and some were my own staff members and direct reports.

Author: ThisIsRobsLife; via Wikimedia Commons

Here are some of the characteristics that made me tear out my hair and that can drive your boss crazy:

Don’t meet commitments

Whether these were to do with commitments like bringing a large contract to completion due at a quarter end, reports to be submitted by a particular date, or just a commitment to carry out some action item, people who were always ready to commit but rarely delivered on time and in quality were frustrating. In many cases their late deliverables impacted the work of others who were dependant on them, and this would invariably scatter timelines to the wind. If you make a commitment, then drive to deliver, otherwise let someone else who can, do so.

Tell him not to worry

I had one country MD who was always telling me not to worry about him, but to focus on others who he felt were less experienced than him. With days to go to the end of a quarter, when he would only be sitting on about 50% of his most recent forecast, he would still be telling me not to worry because everything would be all right. It occasionally was, but I quickly realised that the only way that I could get to a lack of worry about his operation was if he was physically not there to worry me at all. Your boss is paid to worry about the business but you just need to make sure that you are not the one that is making him do so.

Author: Vincerama at de.wikipedia; via Wikimedia Commons

Cover up mistakes and bad news

Covering up mistakes just makes them harder to resolve as time passes. The same is true for delivering bad news, as it will rarely get better through neglect. The sooner after it happens that a problem can be highlighted and addressed, the easier it is to resolve. Covering up mistakes, or delaying bad news, is no different to lying and therefore totally unacceptable in any business context.I always told people that they would not be fired for making an honest mistake, but only if they quickly made it known to the right people who could help with its resolution and that they learned from it.

Be negative all the time

I find it hard enough to cope with people who have been told that they should always be positive and optimistic about everything no matter what, but I find it even harder to live with people who are always negative about everything and everyone around them. People who will always focus on what can go wrong and why things haven’t worked before and can’t work in the future, are incredibly frustrating, and are a destroyer of the mirth and joy that comes from a great job in a great company. It is good business sense to identify barriers to progress, and having a devil’s advocate in the team provides balance, but perpetual “nay-sayers” need to be weeded out.

Author: Jean.julius; via Wikimedia Commons

Have all the answers

It is wonderful to have smart people in the team but people who believe that they always have the right answers get in the way of building creativity in a team, as they stifle input from others. (see “Is it fanatics or fools who are the problem” posted April 23rd, 2012). A great team needs people who encourage debate and dissension, and draw out ideas from those around them. Those that believe that they themselves are always right get in the way of long term sustainable success.

Sacrifice the outcome for the process

I have always believed that “doing the right thing trumps doing the thing right”, particularly when it comes to servicing a customer’s needs. I have never understood, for example, why Air France will not let you get on an earlier connecting flight when you have a restricted ticket, if the flight is not full anyway, and it really makes no difference to the airline whether you take up a seat on this flight or the next. It is just that mindless staff, who have not been empowered to make any decision beyond when they take a loo break, stick to the rules, when bending them would make the airline not only more human but would also engender more loyalty in their customers, while not costing them anything extra. Empower your people so they can focus on doing great things, sometimes even despite what is written in the policies and procedures manual.

Spring surprises on him

As a manager, I hated last minute surprises. I always preferred to know well ahead of time if, for example, a country operation was looking like not meeting its forecast, as this could at least give us an opportunity to try and do something to remedy the situation. Waiting till the eleventh hour to surprise your boss, when it is too late to do anything, other than get angry, is not a smart position in which to put yourself.I was once taken in to a customer meeting which had been presented to me as a friendly “meet and greet” with their CEO. It actually turned out to be a “bash the supplier” session where I was berated about our lack of commitment to their success, about which it later transpired our account exec had been pre-warned, but was too scared to report. All I could do was listen intently, nod wisely and commit to doing something about remedying the situation, and then give the sales exec a decent boot where the sun doesn’t shine when we got away from the tirade of abuse.

Play politics

I have always hated company politicians even more that I have hated people who struggled in their role, as at least you could try and do something about strugglers with some developmental activities, whereas those that love the Machiavellian intrigues are hard to change. Politicians will always be the ones who are ready to listen and spread rumours and are always the ones who can cloud “bad-mouthing” of others in the cloak of concern for the well-being of the team. The only way to handle those that love the political game is to make them go and play their games somewhere else, preferably in a competitor.

I understand that one’s primary focus should be on doing your job really well, but it doesn’t hurt your career to ensure that your boss doesn’t see you and your area of responsibility as being an area of concern, as “There is nothing worse than a nervous boss, particularly if you are the one that is making him nervous.”



“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
Bertrand Russell

Whilst it may not have been his primary intent, I always find it interesting how accurate Bertrand Russell was about the business world.

via Wikimedia Commons

I understand that executives have to show absolute certainty and no doubts when presenting themselves or their plans to their people, but when looking at building a business strategy and direction for an organisation, I have found that those that start with absolute certainties often end up with doubts, whereas those that start with some doubts can ultimately build some certainties.

I love people who are enthusiastic and passionate about the world, their business and their ideas, and I have tended to believe that “nothing succeeds like excess”, but find it very hard to work with fanatics who believe that they are the only ones who have access to, and an understanding of, the ultimate truths in life, whether it covers their business strategy or their understanding of how to work with and manage people.

Like their religious counterparts, business bigots not only believe that their way is the only way, but as a result believe that everyone who diverges from their version of the truth is a heretic and hence needs to be purged. These managers tend to surround themselves either with those looking for a messianic vision or with “yes-men” who toe the line and who offer no dissension, no questioning of the path to be taken and hence who offer little chance for driving change and innovation. Skilled managers not only hire people who will challenge them but also add a few “crazies” to the mix who will challenge most things as a matter of principle.

The problem that I find with managers who are fanatical about their own beliefs is that they either have little ability to drive true long term sustainable innovation, or else tend to drive their version of innovation down their own narrow alley, as summed up by Winston Churchill with “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

So, at which point does a fanatic become a fool ?

The easy answer is that a fanatic becomes a fool when he gets it wrong, for as long as he is deemed to be right, he is seen as a visionary.

Steve Jobs was seen by many to be such a visionary and fanatic after forming Apple in 1976 with Ronald Wayne (who sold out in 1977 for $800) and Steve Wozniak who had just invented the Apple 1. They enjoyed considerable successes and Jobs was seen as being charismatic and persuasive, but he was also seen as an erratic and temperamental manager who believed it was “… either my way or the highway …”. Despite the successful launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the following year Jobs lost his attempt at a boardroom coup against John Sculley the CEO, who had been brought in from Pepsi. The board had sided with Sculley because, despite being told to stop doing it, Jobs continued to “ … launch expensive forays into untested products …”, wasting R+D budget at unsustainable rates. The board removed Jobs from his management position, resulting in his resignation and departure from Apple to form Next.

Author: jurvetson; Source: flikr; via Wikimedia Commons

The board had sided with the manager rather than the fanatic.

Many analysts believe that had the Jobs coup succeeded , the company, which struggled under Sculley, would have found it even harder to stay afloat under Jobs had he won the boardroom battle for control of Apple.
He came back to Apple in 1996, when they purchased Next, and took the helm in 1997 until his death in 2011.

This time the fanatic was right, and his fanaticism drove Apple towards its position today as the world’s most valuable company and well on the way to becoming the first company with a market cap of over $1 trillion.
But I believe that Steve Jobs is the rare case where fanatics can actually sustain the business success for a long term.

The problem is that the so called “Steve Jobs leadership style” has become a holy piece of corporate truism, when it is in reality a work of fiction, asI find it fascinating that a man who was a great “gadget designer” has become the epitome of the great leader.

Jobs always believed that people who disagreed with him just didn’t understand Apple or the market and he didn’t tolerate them. He paid little attention to building a successor despite being aware of his illness since 2003, and built a culture where people at Apple were scared to get into an elevator with him in case even a minimal conversation with him could result in them losing their job, despite the fact that this “Elevator Encounter” story was pure fiction and was only meant to illustrate his mercurial and despotic style (see ). However, the story and its resultant culture creation in Apple is a true indication of the Steve Job’s style of management.

Fortune called Jobs “… one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs …” and Jef Raskin, a former colleague, said of him “Steve would have made an excellent king of France”, alluding to the fact that disagreement and disobedience would automatically result in death.
The issue is that leadership success is very situational, and Jobs came back into Apple at a time when his vision, gadgetry and fanaticism were needed to turn around the company’s fortunes, but to believe that this formula then applies well to other start-ups or companies generally is nonsensical.
Fanatics have their place, but for very specific situations and mostly for limited times, as they will always be unreasonable, and while it takes unreasonable people to drive change, it takes professional management to turn change into sustainable success.

As even understood by a true “King of France”, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said “There is no place in a fanatic’s head where reason can enter.”

via Wikimedia Commons; GNU Free Documentation License


“Why is abbreviation such a long word ?” Steven Wright

With the popularity and rise in real-time text-based communications, such as Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, e-mail, Internet, chat rooms, discussion boards and mobile phone text messaging (SMS), has come the emergence of a new language tailored to the immediacy and compactness of these new communication media. It is changing our language dramatically and questioning our traditional views of literacy.

Author: User:ZyMOS; via Wikimedia Commons

Today, in England, the home of the English language (as Americans have always abbreviated, simplified and sanitised it whenever and wherever possible, Australians have always felt that being able to spell was about as much use as “an ashtray on a bike”, and Kiwis believe that their “Englush duction is pretty shut-hot”), recent studies have shown that 20% of adults fail to attain the literacy levels appropriate for 11 year olds, and that nearly half (43%) of 11 year olds cannot read or write properly when they leave primary school.

And yet these same “illiterate” individuals seem to have no problem with sending text messages.

Life may not be “2EZ” (too easy) for them, and it may not seem “6Y” (sexy) to read anything, as that is “2MI” (too much information), but they can communicate with their peers “A3” (anytime, anywhere, anyplace).

Even for those with some well-developed literary skills, the explosion of blogging as a major information source tends to have minimised their attention spans down to blog size which, while varying with industry, has settled at between 800-1600 words (see

This is considerably less than a short story which is officially pegged at about 7500 words and significantly less than a standard novel, which “The Writers Association of America” has specified as over 40,000 words, or even for a novella at 17,500-40,000. There are also recent indications that the rise in volume in newly published novellas is far outstripping novels, as publishers adjust to meet changing demands for brevity.

Facebook has taught us to post micro-comments on people’s walls, and why read anyway when there is a really good chance that you will be able to save time by watching a 60 second clip of anything important on You Tube.

Author: HernandoJoseAJ; via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter claims to have signed up nearly 200 million people who have come to be able to express every trivial part of their life in 140 characters or less, and have also come to expect that they will get a large part of their information in similar small chunks. Even if one cuts this back to a more realistic 50 million active accounts, it still represents a large part of the so-called literate world.

Does all this mean that as well as general literacy issues in our communities, our attention spans are also getting shorter ?

There are some indications that this is the case. For example the average political sound bites have dropped from about 43 seconds in 1968 to about 8 seconds today, and a 2010 study showed that university students in the UK have an average attention span of about 10 minutes. Attention spans for those that still read newspapers have been shown to be measurable in seconds, unless the article has particular personal significance. Readers just skim over everything else, and anyway, why bother reading a long article when you can keep current by getting an alert on your mobile saying “Tsunami hits Japan. Thousands dead”

Recent research has also suggested that the internet has “taken the learning out of information”. Today, when someone needs to find out something they just google it and their query is answered. Beforehand one would have had to consult various books and actually do some reading and research to work out the answer to their question, thereby doing some broader learning along the way. While there is no question that this immediate access to information has significant benefits (and is also a lot of fun), there are many who believe that the internet is actually making us significantly dumber.

However we view it, we are living in a world that is much more dependent on, and much more reliant on immediacy and as a result it is driving us to abbreviate how we communicate, how we access information and learning, and even how we manage our relationships. It is having a serious impact on every aspect of our lives and will change our language forever.

I have decided to not be left out of this language revolution, and to make a contribution to this new world by condensing some of my favourite Shakespearean plays into tweets. This then makes them short enough for today’s need for brevity, and will hopefully make some of the most wonderful literature the world has ever known available to the masses, and able to survive the coming generations.

via Wikimedia Commons

I know that William would approve, as it was he who wrote:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet

So herewith my Shakespeare for Twitter:


X-feud love causes her cousin’s death and his banishment. Girl fakes death, boy believes real and kills self, girl wakes then suicides.


Ambitious Scot takes throne. Meets and believes witches. Wife’s mind goes. Forest moves and caesarean born takes him down.


Confused prince with dead father gains haunted killer uncle for stepdad. Love interest drowns. Most characters die.


Old king believes flattery of two ambitious children. 3rd is ok but not articulate. Main characters die. One gets blinded.


Battle of the sexes with ending improbable for today as man wins by treating wife badly, but doesn’t lose house.


Noblemen shipwrecked on magical island. Control of Naples and Milan is settled. Everyone set free. No-one dies.


A lot of CEOs don’t succeed, and some who do, do so only for a short time. I have come to the conclusion that there are a number of different reasons that CEOs fail. Here are 10 of the most common ones.

1. Outlive the Founder/CEO role

There comes a time when the most successful founder has to step aside and hand over to professional management, and I have seen too many founders who did not see that their time had come and gone. In my own career, Ken Olsen of Digital is one such example. Olsen, a visionary who pioneered the minicomputer revolution was well past his use by date when he uttered the phrase “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

Author: Snaevar; via Wikimedia Commons

2. Believe their own marketing

Being a successful CEO is heady stuff. You are loved by your people, your customers, the markets and the press. It is not hard to get to a point where you lose all humility and start to believe that you have all the answers, and start to believe in your own brilliance and omniscience. CEOs can lose contact with their own people, their customers and their markets, after all, when one is so important, why bother with anyone else ? CEOs who lose perspective are unlikely to be able to continue to succeed.

3. Run out of steam

Some CEOs just run out of momentum. The business world today is a tough, competitive, ever changing environment which requires continuous rethought and re-invention, and not all CEOs have the ability to live through more than a limited number of product and technology generational shifts. For example Olsen at DEC did not prepare for the PC revolution and Wang did not manage to live past proprietary operating systems being replaced by the likes of Unix.

By Dpbsmit; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Lose the faith

It’s not easy to stay motivated and lead a company on a downward slope, and at any given time about half the companies in any industry, are heading in the wrong direction. Once great companies like Kodak, who pioneered and once dominated their industry can lose the way completely and the CEO, no matter how skilled, may not be able to reverse the slide once the downward momentum is too steep.

5. Peter strikes

The Peter Principle is alive and well. Great divisional heads do not necessarily make great CEOs, and even CEOs who have been successful in one company can hit their competence ceiling in another company in the musical chair movement of CEOs that we see in some industries.

6. Generational shifts

Some successful CEOs just get non-chronologically too old and out of date too quickly and do not adjust to the changing expectations in the new generations of workers. Younger employees have different expectations of “the meaning of work”, and CEOs who do not understand these differences will find it hard to lead and motivate their organisations

7. Diverge from the corporate path

I have seen Country MDs who decide that the global corporate direction just isn’t right for their country, and therefore decide that they will just continue to head on in their current well-trodden path rather that toe the company line. This is fine if you own the company, but is not acceptable to global management in a large, multinational, publicly listed company. I have recently seen one country MD in a large global F-1000 company who just made the decision that his market was not subject to the quarterly reporting requirements imposed, and started just doing an annual forecast. He didn’t last much longer.

8. Test of time

What we did yesterday to be successful will not necessarily work today, and what we do well today will not necessarily work tomorrow. You can be surfing on the crest of a wave one moment and the find yourself buried head first in the sand in the next. The markets and customers can be very fickle and in the dynamic and changeable environment in most industries today, not all strategies will necessarily have a long shelf life.

By Stan Shebs; via Wikipedia Commons

9. Cultural misfit

Some executives can be great in their own environment but cannot make the shift to a global CEO role because they do not understand nor accept that there are serious cultural differences that need to be complied with and honoured. One company I worked for had the global CEO come and visit a major account of ours in the waste disposal business in Asia. The customer CEO was always very serious, very decorous and had never exhibited an open sense of humour, all which fitted well with the local cultural standards. During the meeting, despite a clear briefing, our CEO suddenly decided that he had come up with a wonderful slogan for the customer’s company being “Your trash is our cash”, and could not resist uttering this pearl of wisdom again and again. It took us months after the visit to convince the customer that our CEO was just exhibiting an American sense of humour and was not a raving lunatic.

10. Lose the plot.

Some CEOs just lose the plot. The quirks and peculiarities that helped to get them to the top just get more pronounced and more unbalanced after they get to the top office. As we age our personality traits tend to become more pronounced, and some characteristics that seemed somewhat endearing and mildly idiosyncratic can turn into serious lunacies. I knew one CEO who was a fairly aggressive driver, who always kept a running commentary going about the stupidities of everyone else on the road. When his chairman visited him at his holiday home in Marbella Spain one time, he completely lost the plot while driving to a restaurant, and gave chase and finally rammed another driver who had moments before suddenly cut in front of him. This incident made the chairman question the CEO’s sanity and ultimately resulted in his removal.

Author: Charles01; via Wikimedia Commons

As M.H. Alderson, American sports coach said “If at first you don’t succeed, you are running about average”.


I have always believed that someone in a senior executive role, particularly a CEO, should not stay in the job for more than about 5-6 years, as I believe that everything that you will do after that is likely to be just a rerun, and you will also become too accustomed to what is, rather than what should be.

This realisation hit me personally when I was in the chair of President/CEO SAP Asia Pacific. I had built the Asia Pacific Region initially from Australia/NZ where I had started as MD in 1994 and then into ASEAN/India and finally Japan/Korea/China. By 2001 we had operations in 13 countries with 3500 employees and revenues of € 1B. It had been one hell of an exciting 8 year comet ride, basically from a standing start.

Author: ASDFGH; via Wikimedia Commons

I had been fortunate to be able to gather a really solid management team, with strong young regional VPs, including a skilled, mentored and ready successor, a great CFO, well blooded and experienced services heads and good country MDs. Our management meetings in the early years were exciting, energetic, passionate, noisy, animated and interesting.

I noticed in about 2001 that these meetings were becoming less controversial, less fiery and less passionate. I guess that I could have written this off as just being the maturing of the organisation, which would have been an easy excuse with which to convince myself, but it just didn’t sit well with me.

I collared two of my closest advisors in my team to find out what had changed, and found out that since I had been appointed to the SAP Board in 1999, my management team had decided that with my now added global responsibilities, I should not be burdened with handling internal, general SAP Asia Pac issues. They had therefore instituted a separate Asia Pac regional management meeting, on the day before the one that I chaired, to nut out all the issues so that they did not have to bother me with them. This was where all the energy, passion and fire that should come from any management team was been exhibited and expended. By the time it all got to me, things had already been discussed, fought through, agreed, resolved and sanitised.

This definitely made my life easier, while making my management meetings somewhat bland, but it also made me think about the fact that after 8 years at the helm, I may have actually become unnecessary, and that it was time I gave my Asia Pacific management the chance to create their own successes and mistakes (just as I had been given), and build their own future, rather than having to live with mine.

Luckily, SAP had some interesting things for me to do in Europe, so I was able to hand over to my successor and ride off into an SAP European sunset where I stayed for another five years to my retirement, and where I have continued to live.

Author: amadeusm; via Wikimedia Commons

I was fortunate that I had this epiphany at the time because in hindsight the region was definitely ready for a change. Having built the region from infancy to adulthood I had come to think of it as belonging to me personally, rather than being something that I held in stewardship for, and by the good grace of, SAP-Ag. The region had also been built piece by piece over the eight years, so I was personally connected to the employees, but as growth continued at this frantic pace the region needed more structure and process as well as personal relationships and linkages. My successor, being Swiss, was more capable of achieving this than I would have been.

I have met quite a few CEOs who were not as fortunate to have received the warning shot early enough, and have stayed on longer than they should have to the eventual detriment of the organisation.

So when is enough, enough ?

There is no question that you should go before others want you to go, but long-serving executives are generally so because they have built a record of successful performance, and usually a team of fervent supporters and allies in the organisation, and these make it hard to believe that this success is not sustainable into the future. It is also hard to give up something where you feel ownership and responsibility, that is familiar, that is comfortable, where you are well connected and networked, and when the culture, having been built by you, is in line with your personal and business belief systems.

One ex-CEO, who I now sit with on a board, told me that he knew it was time to step aside when after 6 years in the job he started to see a re-cycling in the issues that his executive team, and his organisation, had to face and resolve. This made him understand that it was time for a new team to face these issues in new ways, and he put a plan in place to not only replace himself as CEO, but also a number of his older senior management team at the same time.

A good leader understands that his responsibility is not to himself but to the health and success of the organisation and its people and to hand over the reins, particularly at a time of great success, is not easy to do, but totally necessary. One critical strength of any leader is how well he can build his successor, and I believe that the time to step aside is even more a question of how over-ready your successor is to step up to your role than how under-ready you are to step aside. (See “Characteristics of a successful manager” posted July 18, 2011).

Dietmar Hopp one of the SAP founders and CEO for 10 years till he unexpectedly stepped aside in 1998 at the height of the company’s success, said it all “It is better to go too early than too late”.

Author: Smalltown Boy at de.wikipedia; via Wikimedia Commons