I’d love to say that I have had the luxury of only working with great CEO’s in my career, but that would be a lie. I often see the worst of companies, being brought in when things are broken – a company isn’t growing as investors want, sales are flat, technology out of date, clients are unhappy and hiring & retaining top talent seems impossible.
Often, poor business results are because of bad decisions made by CEOs because of ego, loyalty or ignorance. In large companies – the downfall of a single executive can tarnish a brand, cost investors millions and cause hundreds or even thousands of employees their jobs.
(Luckily, HR put together a fancy new employment brand campaign and do some “culture training” and clean up the mess, right?)
Here is my take on the 5 Worst Types of CEO
- The Psychopath – When 1 in 5 CEO’s show psychopath tendencies, I am rarely shocked to see a little American Psycho or Christian Gray making appearances in business. Just follow a few well-known CEO’s on Twitter, and you’ll quickly identify a handful – the world is about them, and everyone else is here for their enjoyment. The lack of fear makes them successful at taking risks. The lack of empathy means decisions are often self-serving. These CEO’s are masters of deception and will eliminate from the inner circle anyone that figures them out – they love and preach loyalty. They often partner with HR well, so when people come to complain or air concern it will seem “out of character” and inadvertently HR protects what and who is the problem.
- The Creeper – These are the ones that utilize their role for advancing more than their career. They want to go to the strip clubs when you’re on a business trip, “joke” about sex or even proposition you. They have “consensual relationships” affairs with interns, assistants or others that have something to lose by saying no. Thanks to the #metoo movement, a lot of the creepers have been called out that previously took a golden parachute quietly …for those “I thought it was consensual” relationships.
- The Culture Bro – These leaders use terms like “culture” and “fit” when hiring and growing teams. Too often what they mean is someone that isn’t a different sex, religion, race, ethnicity, age, political party or socio-economic background. They are D-bags and likely still tell stories from their high school glory days. If you’re in HR, have this as your CEO and can “handle” it – I hope you have a great attorney and broken moral compass. Ask the Uber CHRO how it worked out for her.
- The Emperor – Do you remember the book The Emperor’s New Clothes from when we were kids? The emperor was naked and had surrounded himself with so many yes-men that he believed he looked amazing his “new outfit.” There are CEO’s that run publicly-traded companies this way. They say they want honesty, feedback, and to gain competitive knowledge to be the best, but disagree or get defensive with anything that isn’t positive-leaning or what they want to hear. If things aren’t okay, its always because the information was wrong or due to a situation out of their control. Sales are down, NPS is down, clients and employees are unhappy – but the CEO surrounds themselves only with people that tell them how great it is… and he believes it. When HR or anyone else brings up anything to the contrary and doesn’t change their mind to believe them – they are out of the circle of trust.
- The Gaslighter – Possibly one of the most toxic types for culture-wide impact is the gaslighting CEO who is well aware of the companies real shortcomings and issues but finds scapegoats. They twist them, taking no accountability for corporate-wide decisions and instead go after employees directly – blaming the sales teams, marketing – even HR for the bad hires and retention issues that are causing a lack of success. Gaslighting is a serious mindf*ck for employees told they aren’t working hard enough or even worse – “have no reason why they can’t be successful” (puts all responsibility on an individual vs. the company’s decisions). They regularly talk about how great things are at company meetings, even misleading investors or pointing out the “real” challenges which are almost always a symptom, not the core issue. Employees feel like they are going crazy.
I hate to tell you this, but if you see one of these characteristics in your CEO, there are likely 1-2 more, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Since we are just lowly consultants and workers, it is essential to remember when you work with these types of personalities – you can’t change them or their leadership style, so you have to decide for yourself how well you can play politics without going crazy and if the job, company and résumé addition is worth it.
If you are interviewing and you see this, at a minimum, ask for more money than you wanted to put up with the BS.
The access of our CEO’s to be jerks or worse, racists, on Twitter; send inappropriate pictures on Snapchat; get filmed acting a fool in public and reviewed openly by employees on sites like Glassdoor has changed the impact a CEO can have on everything from people to profits. Nothing is hidden anymore, everything will come out eventually and companies are paying millions in severance and hush money to try to keep things hidden.
For HR leaders, these types of CEOs presents a unique set of personal challenges – where your loyalty sits, your ethical boundaries, your personal values’ impact on your professional role and for the first time – your legal responsibilities before you become part of the story (and lawsuit). People are tired of putting up with HR covering up and overlooking things to protect the C-suite instead of the workers.
For longer than she would like to admit, Sarah Brennan has been a recognized HCM industry analyst and advisor focused on improving the impact of technology on people, business and the future of work. She has been named a top global influencer by more than 50 publications and shared her random insights on people and technology at speaking engagements around the world. After a few years as a corporate talent leader, and a few more in the C-suite of software companies, Sarah founded Accelir where she partners with B2B and HR technology vendors and investors as an advisor, strategist and in engagements focused on growth, product roadmap & market education/evangelism so you (hopefully) don’t have to hate your software one day. She also works with a executives and corporate HR teams enhancing talent attraction & retention strategies. But all of this work is really just a front to fund her early retirement on a lake somewhere, save for her kids college and pay for the way to frequent family trips to Disney, Europe, Colorado and anywhere else with great food.