The Cost of an Alpha Executive

What happens when an executive gets great results, but in a manner that is destructive or even toxic? This is the conundrum of the alpha executive. (Not all alphas are male. The need for control and power can be an issue for women as well.)

This month I want to share the story of an alpha who has found a new way to lead. OK, I am going to brag a little.

Bill is the COO of a $220 million high-tech manufacturing firm with aggressive growth plans. He was hired by the founder to bring managerial rigor into what had been a seat-of-the-pants environment. His talent for rational thinking and control quickly began to rein in leaking costs and lackluster performance. However, Bill ran afoul of the maxim that any asset overused quickly becomes a liability.

It was clear from “360 feedback” that Bill was broadly perceived as controlling, unreasonable, untrustworthy and an active blockage to collaboration among the executive team. Bill’s love of a good debate meant that he saw most discussion as a challenge. He would lean forward in his seat and, in an almost predatory manner, engage so forcefully that no real discussion was possible.

Bill’s experience was completely different. In his mind, he was simply making decisions efficiently and keeping the organization on track. Bill was shocked, angered and saddened to see the perceptions of the organization, especially those of the executive team. His question to me was typical of alpha executives when presented with this kind of information, “How do we fix these guys? Do they expect me to get soft? That is not what I am here for!”

Bill began working on listening and delegation. He thought he was doing both but, in fact, substituted debate and task assignment for these key capacities. It is hard for alphas to slow down and keep asking questions. It is often harder for them to share power. Slowly though, Bill began to let the leaders he had hired for their abilities take accountability for decisions and outcomes. Not only did he get the target off his back, but he found more time for strategic projects. Bill even took a 10-day vacation.

This week, I received a note from Bill. It seems that some of the members of the executive team wanted to make a radical departure from what has been a hard and fast management practice at the firm for years. Bill related that he did not agree with the proposed change, but simply allowed the discussion to follow its course. A year ago, there would have been summary judgment, complete with potential execution. There was now open discussion. Forty-five minutes later, the team reached a compromise that Bill was quite comfortable making.

As a result, here is what will not happen. There will not be unexpressed anger and resentment. The decision will not be revisited four more times or socialized in back channels to get around Bill. There will not be a wasted pilot in Europe or Asia, sapping resources and attention in order to prove the idea after the decision was made. Perhaps most important, there will not be the need to continually re-enroll the leadership team, who will champion and manage the change themselves.

Perhaps most remarkable is that a year ago, Bill would have thought this open conversation a waste of time. Today, he can see that in taking the time and allowing the debate, he has been more efficient and more effective in keeping his company on track. The real challenge is that few alphas would identify themselves as destructive. After all, they get results. But heavy-handedness, control and unilateral decisions are neither sustainable nor efficient for either the organization or the executive.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, August 20, 2007.