Operator’s Manual

New CEOs Aren’t Silver Bullet Problem Solvers — So Stop Treating Them That Way

No one person can fix everything wrong with a company, so why do boards and investors continue to act like they can?

Photo: Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Maybe it was the stale pastry. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Whatever it was, though, when I heard my fellow board member say it, I felt like puking.

“What we need,” he bloviated, “is a world-class CEO.”

There it goes again, I thought, the myth of a new CEO as a silver bullet. Too often we fall prey to simplistic, infantile thinking; we project all of our wishes, dreams, and aspirations onto a single person or idea in the vain hope that they, finally, will solve our problems and calm our fears.

We doom the incoming CEO to failure.

In businesses, I’ve seen boards fixate on the act of replacing the CEO. The problem with this is that, in a sense, we doom the incoming CEO to failure. No single person can fix everything.

Even more troubling, this mythology is often is built on an almost willful ignorance of the facts. If the CEO (or head of sales or head of marketing or CTO) really needs to be replaced — and, believe me, I know that is often the case — then the troubles don’t end with that one person. If the CEO needs to be replaced, perhaps the whole team they built needs to be replaced as well. Or, even more insidious, perhaps the underlying business model is wrong.

Why do we board members, investors, and advisers do this? (And trust me, I’ve done this.) I don’t think it’s because we’re mentally lazy. I think we’re afraid to face the larger implications. When I was an investor, it was often because I was afraid to admit I’d made a mistake in making the investment.

Or, we might be afraid to do the real work necessary to correct the underlying problem — like fire everyone, strip the business down to the barest minimum, and rebuild the business model. I once sat on a board where the CEO (the CEO!) drove such a decision. It was scary and beautiful.

Real leadership requires putting aside guilt and shame and facing fearsome facts.

Or, even more frightening, is to face the fact that the enemy, as Pogo said, is us — that the problem isn’t the CEO, or the head of sales, or even the business model, but the board of directors.

Real leadership requires putting aside guilt and shame and facing fearsome facts. It would be lovely if a single magical bullet could kill the big, bad werewolf. In business — indeed, in life — there’s little room for magical thinking. As my former business partner Fred Wilson used to say, “Hope is not a strategy.”

And the myth of the silver bullet CEO is exactly that: hope as a strategy. In fact, it’s a particularly deadly myth because it’s hope wrapped in the patina of lofty-sounding, meaningless terms like “world-class.”

There’s a place in our lives for magic and mythical heroes; it’s just not in the boardroom.

A version of this post was first published on my blog, The Monster in Your Head, in February 2010.

CEO of coaching firm Reboot.io and the author of REBOOT: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. https://www.reboot.io/book

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