What CEOs Can Learn From NBC’s Mistakes

How many bad decisions, especially those caused by willful blindness, are OK for NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack?
Ronan Farrow.

Andy Lack, Chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, appears to have simple and self-serving criteria for those he selects, supports and fires. Ronan Farrow reports that while at NBC and investigating the story on Harvey Weinstein, he was told to back off. He didn’t push NBC to take the story forward, instead going to The New Yorker, where it was published.

If Lack’s motive was to avoid rocking the boat, he was misguided in the belief that he could prevent it. He could, however, distance himself and NBC from the story. But the deliberate distancing became its own headline when Farrow and The New Yorker were awarded a Pulitzer for the story. This week, Farrow published another article in The New Yorker, describing harassment and assault charges against New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, who resigned mere hours later.

Anyone can make a mistake in decisions about who to hire, remove, promote, and so forth. In Lack’s case, a trail of bad decisions, involving Mark Halperin and Matt Lauer, for example, begs the question of his fitness to lead. How many bad decisions, especially those caused by willful blindness, are OK?

In an ironic contrast, this is also the week of the Berkshire-Hathaway shareholder meeting. Surrounding the meeting, as always, are many interviews with Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. The bedrock of Buffett’s model for hiring people is about integrity. He says, “You look for three things: You look for intelligence, you look for energy and you look for integrity.” He goes on to say that without integrity, energy and intelligence will cause trouble. We need think no further than Bernie Madoff, Enron and WorldCom for examples of that.

“When top leaders are not grounded firmly in the idea that integrity is the most important attribute, especially their own, a type of delusion can occur.”

The Invisible Trap of Success

When top leaders are not grounded firmly in the idea that integrity is the most important attribute, especially their own, a type of delusion can occur. Yet, success can and should make people feel proud of their achievements. Organizations that err by making humility their rallying cry don’t allow people to enjoy satisfaction of work done well, an important aspect of motivation.  Just think for a moment if you would choose a neurosurgeon because he or she was humble. The problem occurs when people come to believe that their success in one circumstance is indicative of ability in all situations. This phenomena known as over-generalization can occur without awareness and fuel confidence that is unjustified.

Invisible Criteria

Despite the legions of people, internal and external, who create competency models, the real criteria is not revealed in the models. The criterion lives in the leaders.

Often leaders aren’t even aware of how they make decisions about people. “I use my gut” may sound like insight but it’s bogus and lazy. Thinking about how one makes decisions and doing the hard work of testing that belief (human as it is) that we are usually right, takes guts. But it is important. Why? It keeps us honest with the person it is most important to be honest with, ourselves. Just give yourself 10 seconds to recall how many leaders you have watched stand in front of a group and spout meaningless drivel. It insults the listener and diminishes the speaker.

Why do smart people evade the truth that is staring them in the face? Because it is inconvenient, anxiety-provoking and makes people wonder if they are responsible for the crisis in the first place.

Even if we aren’t the cause of something, not facing up to it does make us responsible. I will never forget the CEO I advised many years ago who fired his COO, who happened to be a close friend. The COO was having an affair with a subordinate. It was an agonizing decision but was made quickly when he realized that he would expect any other leader in his company to do the same in a similar circumstance. This in face of record-breaking results and knowing he would have to explain his action to the board. For obvious reasons, I cannot tell you who he is but he deserves every bit of admiration his people had for him. He was beloved.

What do you want the people in your company to say about you? What do you want shareholders and partners to say? The best leaders want to be known for leading their company to great results with integrity. The best leaders have people who will help them do just that; people who will contradict them, challenge them and help them grow. Great leaders don’t hide from the truth.


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