Friday, October 24, 2008

Beware successful Chief Executives?

I often have a look at the Random Rantings of Freek Vermeulen - an Associate Professor of Strategic & International Management at the London Business School. This month he has warned that some of top performing chief execs should be avoided like the plague.

The logic is:

Bad managers are those people who just don’t get it. They accept worse average returns for higher risks. And this is where it gets tricky. Because if they accept very high risks, in spite of lower average returns, every once in a while one of these morons will actually hit the jack-pot…

That is, if we take the top 1 percent – and only this 1 percent – of top performers, they’re likely to be those people who don’t get it at all… but just got incredibly lucky!

He goes on:

The same is true – as Stanford’s Professor Jim March asserted – for CEOs. The ones that are the eye-catching top-performers are likely the ones who just don’t get it. The dangerous thing is that they are also the ones with the absolute highest return in their business. Therefore we naively believe that they “do get it” and, in fact, are quite brilliant. Moreover, that’s what they start to believe as well… (“I win again; I must be brilliant…!”). Yet, they got lucky once, the might get lucky twice, or three times (at which point we start to notice them) but eventually their luck will turn (the names of Bernard Tapie, Jeff Skilling, Cees van der Hoeven and Conrad Black come to mind).

He concludes warning against “top performers” in any business or situation which involves risk:
The one coming out on top is likely to be a moron, who just got lucky.

I suspects the theory has the ring of truth for many people. (I also think that there are all sorts of interesting issues around management, leadership and success. How often do successful managers demonstrate themselves to be poor leaders when they are asked to lead people rather than manage things? How often is the asset of charisma associated with a dangerous risk-loving attitude?)

Nevertheless even if the theory makes sense, I think care should be taken in applying it to assessing, appraising and rewarding performance!

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