Exorcising Business Monsters

Once again, Halloween approaches and we see more ghouls, zombies, monsters and the like emerging from the shadows into the cultural spotlight. Rather than a laundry list of the frights that await businesspeople this autumn, I am focusing on a few of the most common. This year, rather than dwell on the demons and monsters, I am including an executive coach’s version of sunlight, wooden stakes and the other talismans useful to exorcise the Halloween crowd from your place of business.

Given the nature of the current political campaigns, skeletons in the closet seem like the most appropriate place to begin. Like the monster under the bed of our youth, skeletons in the closet wait until the most inconvenient time to emerge. We all have them. Not all are character flaws or business failures. Many are simply the ignored fossils of an earlier business model or calcified remains of a poorly considered decision that needs to be dug out and dealt with.

The best shovel for that kind of digging is the courageous, even frightening question that may have gone unasked for too long. For a great list of those questions, and a solid strategy for skeleton hunting, visit Greg Bustin’s blog at Bustin.com. In addition to his business books on accountability and strategy, Bustin has a talent for direct, powerful writing about some of the most challenging topics business leaders face, and his October entry addresses the questions needed to dig out organizational skeletons.

Another common creature in the corporate hallway is the vampire. Business vampires suck the lifeblood out of a company without adding much to the vitality of the organization. Moreover, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, corporate vampires never see their own reflection in the mirror. They cannot see their own role in the challenges of the organization. For a simple but powerful tool for dealing directly with the vampires in your organization, have a look at BobProsen.com. There is a simple video on the home page at Prosen’s site that describes his approach to dealing with failed commitments. Prosen’s strategy is direct, clear and powerful, and neither wooden stakes nor garlic is needed.

It would not be Halloween without Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Reanimated from the dead, Frankenstein’s monster is misunderstood, frightened and takes up a tremendous amount of time and attention. Most such monsters are not people, but projects. Remnants of the tech bubble when we all thought that technology was the answer to everything, these reanimated projects are never finished and never functional. Most, like the original, were a bad idea to begin with. For a clear strategy for dealing with projects that just will not die, I recommend a Harvard Business Review article on the subject, “Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill”. It is an oldie from 2003 but a goodie, and it still applies.

Lastly, a less popular but every bit as pernicious nightmare: the Mummy. While not technically a Halloween classic, the Mummy is actually not that unusual. Wrapped up in himself and his agenda — usually world domination, or at least the next big promotion — the Mummy is unaware of his impact. That inability to understand his self-absorption can only be cured with a strong dose of clear and powerful feedback. For the full version of how to get a mummy unwrapped, get a copy of Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” (Hachette Books, 2007) and require that the Mummy read and use the peer feedback structure in the back half of the book. Or for the 600-word version, go back to my article here in January, “A Master Class in Feedback”.

Most of these monsters weren’t born monsters; their experience made them monsters. It’s the same with bad business models or failed projects; they had potential but then went wrong. And none of these monsters are immortal. All can be vanquished using the methods and tools I’ve mentioned, allowing your business to operate openly and in the sunlight, unhaunted by the ghosts and goblins of past mistakes.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 24, 2016.