Friday, May 2, 2008

Are you suffering from The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome?

Children’s fables are written as a vehicle to teach children valuable lessons about life. These lessons also have life applicability to adults and a direct relevance in business to senior executives and CEOs.

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson is a fable about an emperor who allowed himself to be disillusioned. He was so caught up in what he wanted to see and believe that he didn’t see reality. In his case it was about clothing, but for you as a senior executive it could be one of many things.

For those of you who have forgotten the story, here is the thumbnail version. An emperor who was vain and cared too much about clothes hired two tailors who were crooks. They promised him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they told him, was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position. The Emperor was nervous about not being able to see the cloth himself so he sent his ministers to view it. They saw nothing, but knowing the issues praised the cloth. The Emperor allowed himself to be dressed in the creation for a procession through town. During the course of the procession, a small child cried out, "But he has nothing on!" The crowd realized the child was telling the truth and began laughing. The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn't see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent.

You can imagine the results.

What does this mean to you as a senior executive you may ask?

“Everything isolates the CEO – be careful not to stifle dissent. Beware the Emperor’s New Clothes – Everyone wants to make you happy and not want to share bad news with you”

Kevin Sharer – Amgen CEO

Hard charging CEOs and senior executives often have this issue. Its not that your staff and the high priced big name consultant firms that you bring in want to deliberately deceive you. All, while they want to do good work, can have a vested interest in NOT exposing the flaws and possibly incurring your wrath. The farther down the line each project gets, the worse it becomes. The “halo” effect comes in to play and the flaws are overlooked. Since you are at least one or two people removed from the issue, it never gets to you.

I recently spoke with a CEO of a large manufacturing firm. His company had removed a popular product from the market that had lower margins in the expectation that customers could be convinced to trade up to new machines with better throughput and higher margins. Not so. The customers were unwilling to do this and stopped ordering. Given the production schedules, the intra-company reports didn’t show the problem. It wasn’t until a trusted employee took the CEO aside for a private moment and told him the truth. In essence, he became the young child in the Hans Christian Anderson story. The company suffered substantial losses. Several executives were asked to resign and extensive damage control was required with the customers.

Malicious? No. Just the CEO being kept out of the loop or given information that was biased to some degree.

This has to resonate with all senior executives no matter how closely you think you have your hand on the pulse of your business. In your case it isn’t a matter of pride like it was for the Emperor. Have you built up a support group that doesn’t provide full truth to you, since they want to look good in your eyes? Do you have big name consulting firms that want to keep the high priced contracts with you and therefore don’t really provide fully unbiased feedback?

Do you have someone that can provide you with unbiased feedback and is able to see the issues and opportunities that exist for you based on their extensive experience?

Do you?


John Maver
Maver Management Group
(925) 648-7561
Maver Management

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1 comment:

Lewis Green said...


All executives should read this post. The bottom line: If you can't get close to your customers to understand their wants and needs, get close to your employees, especially those who touch your customers. Not only can they save executives from making costly mistakes, they can increase a business's bottom line. Open the door, invite employees in, listen to them, and act on their best ideas.