No Time for Happy Talk

There's a disturbing trend among leadership: in the face of difficulty, whether in terms of obstacles or a changing environment, there is an increasing tendency for leaders to engage in "happy talk," painting a rosy portrait of a situation, even as a company is in its death throes.

In part, this is a meter of self-defense. In 2001 alone, 22% of CEOs lost their jobs. Being frank about a difficult situation is a sign of weakness that brings board members to doubt in the ability of corporate leadership. Meanwhile, CEO tenure is at an all-time low of less than five years, such that a senior leader is seldom around to suffer the consequence of his negligence: he can tell a good story, then move on before the walls begin to fall.

It's likewise a plague among executives, who prefer not only to tell a happy story, but to hear one from their own subordinates. In that way, many are blindsided by problems that they should have been aware of, and should have been acting to correct, and their subordinates are reluctant to bring problems to the surface. Career safety means being positive and predictable.

Unless a change is made at the highest levels of corporate management - which is to say, at the highest levels of corporate ownership (as the board directs the top executives), it may be difficult to break the cycle.

A tip to managers in poisoned cultures is to focus on short-term projects, no more than six months in duration, to be able to present good news about progress. Another tip is to present bad news in a very careful way.