No more success theater

Success Theater means hitting short term goals while burning out your people, burning bridges, or eroding longer term business prospects. It means reporting “Green” status while things are going off the rails.

When Alan Mulally joined Ford as CEO in 2006 the company was in bad shape and Success Theater was common practice as described by the Brookings Institution;

“In his first Business Plan Review, Mulally stopped the meeting halfway through. “We’re going to lose billions of dollars this year,” he said, eyeing each executive in turn. “Why is every line green? Isn’t there anything that’s not going well here?” The executives later admitted they hadn’t believed Mulally when he’d promised that honesty would not be penalized. That’s why all their lines were green.”

Ford leaders were creating the illusion of success by emphasizing the good stuff, and downplaying the challenges.

Three factors contributing to Success Theater.

I believe most people do not consciously choose behave this way, but many still do. Why is that?

Firstly, we all love a great story where the hero wins against all odds. Whether it is a Hail Mary pass that wins the big game, or James Bond saving the world at the last second. The Hero’s journey is a common story telling technique in books, movies and advertising.

Business school case studies, management literature and biographies all reinforce this cult of success and create an image of the hero leader that perseveres. We are taught that the hero can turn things around, however unlikely it seems in the moment.

The second factor is leader’s interpretation of company culture and power dynamics. They may fear looking weak, losing face, or being penalized if they admit something is not going as planned.

Lastly the leader may work under the old adage “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. The challenge with this approach is that valuable time can be lost, and the solution may need a broader view than is available to the individual.

How to fight Success Theater.

The Ford story illustrates a first step to move away from Success Theater.

“At the second Business Plan Review, Mark Fields’s [President of Ford Americas] slide showed red. There was dead silence. “Dead man walking,” thought one of his peers. “I wonder who’ll get the Americas,” another mused. Suddenly, someone started clapping. It was Mulally. “Mark, that’s great visibility,” he said, beaming. “Who can help Mark with this?”

If you are getting the sense that people are not giving you the whole story and are putting a positive spin on things, the best starting point is a healthy dose of introspection. Ask yourself;

  • Why are my people telling me what they think I want to hear?
  • Did I set expectations of what I expect them to handle themselves, and what I expect them to bring to my attention?
  • Do my actions back up those expectations, especially when things are not going as planned?
  • When I ask clarifying questions, how do I come across? Do people feel I am trying to help, or to assign blame?

Ultimately, the leader should set clear expectations, create a safe place for transparency, and convey a sense of trust that the team as a whole can handle anything that will come in their path.

You may find yourself in a position where you need to decide whether or not to share certain challenges with your leadership. Courage it the main advice in this case. You will need to have the facts at your fingertips, without making excuses or assigning blame. Be clear on what you are asking for; a decision, or support in certain areas, or just giving advance warning at this point. Sometimes things do not go as planned, and showing that you have a clear view of next steps will give the sense that you are on top of the challenge, even if you do not have a solution.

We are all a product of our environment, and these behaviors are deeply engrained. There are no easy, quick fixes, but the suggestions above are a solid starting point.

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