The risks of having an extramarital affair, even when it is consensual, as former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich did, can result in personal outcomes too devastating to contemplate. It doesn’t matter, as in Krzanich’s case, if a relationship with a colleague is prior to one’s ascension to CEO. Damage to one’s ability to lead the company, not to mention harm to personal relationships, makes it insane to throw it all away for a bit of adventure. So why does a CEO take the chance?
The answers are both obvious and complicated.
As an article in the Observer pointed out, it’s true that everyone but the CEO is allowed to have an affair. According to Trustify, a leader in data security investigations, 36% of men and women admit to having an affair with a coworker, where the risks are more personal rather than professional.
But when the risks are high, as in the C-Suite, men are more likely to engage in love affairs. Does this suggest men are willing to take greater risks, as if they were chasing a deal, or are they simply more stressed out and inclined to seek this form of alternative therapy?
If you examine the corporate record, love affairs in the C-Suite aren’t a habit yet, but they aren’t a rarity, either. If we start the clock with Harry Stonecipher’s dismissal from Boeing in 2005, it amounts to roughly one eruption every few years among major CEOs, or more accurately, male CEOs: Wynn Casino’s Steve Wynn, GE’s Jack Welch, CIA’s General David Petraeus, HP’s Mark Hurd, BP’s Lord John Brown, and Priceline’s Darren Huston, to name a few. All had affairs, tried to conceal them, were outed, disgraced or pilloried by the media, and all were men. What else do we need to know?
Well, a few things.
It is interesting that no female CEOs of major companies have been terminated for inappropriate relationships against company policy. Yet, women, as chief executives, suffer from the same level (or more) of stress, travel away from loved ones, media scrutiny, and job insecurity, as their male counterparts. During the past year, according to the Wall Street Journal, nearly one-third of female CEOs of major companies have lost their jobs, yet none were charged with a love affair as the reason.
“If your strategic planning skills are so great that you are a chief executive, then try figuring out a better way to fix or end a sour marriage than an affair.”
Perhaps we can learn something here by taking the examples of the brilliant women running challenging organizations, like GM’s Mary Barra, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi. They deal with the highest levels of stress imaginable in their professional lives but are secure in their personal relationships.
There is also a lesson to be learned by looking at the formerly disgraced CEOs and seeing how they have moved ahead in the years after.
— Know yourself. We all act out of character occasionally, and an extramarital affair is a prime example. The fact that many of the CEOs who were caught in inappropriate affairs have gone on to build great or greater second acts suggests it was an aberration. General Petraeus is a partner at KKR, Mark Hurd has run Oracle splendidly, and Lord John Brown is an advisor, educator, and philanthropist, activities he would have engaged in had nothing changed in his career. Perhaps there are moments when we just need help, and knowing ourselves better could inspire us to get the right kind instead.
— Dedication to the cause. If someone is 100% engaged, as most CEOs are, by the way, temptations are chucked off because we are fulfilled by our work. Coworkers become vital teammates, not love objects, and there isn’t any line to cross.
— Solve your personal problems at home. If the CEO’s marriage is on the rocks (something you should share with your board, by the way), then deal with that independently. If your strategic planning skills are so great that you are a chief executive, then try figuring out a better way to fix or end a sour marriage than an affair. The cost will be a fraction of the alternative.
— No one is immune to the rules. When you are even contemplating an affair against a policy you have authorized for others in the company, it is a matter you will never be comfortable discussing with your board or want your family to discover. So just walk away. This just isn’t something you can let happen.
— Already having an affair? There are two choices, neither of them particularly auspicious: end the affair immediately, resign or both. Depending on how long and with whom the affair has gone on, and your relationship with your board, there may be mitigating circumstances. There still needs to be a public acknowledgment, and the fallout from that will determine all outcomes.
The bottom line as with any form of behavior that is questionable, the consequences should be examined. Draw up a list of pros and cons. Then have a frank conversation with your proposed amour, preferably during the morning hours. Most likely, that will have the intended effect.
Related: Healthy Companies Start With Healthy Leadership