Running a company does not mean you’re leading it: 5 ways to avoid employee disillusionment

Being in charge isn't the same thing as being good at it

This past Friday, Apple CEO Tim Cook testified in a court case that will determine whether or not his company’s app store represents a monopoly. Reed Albergotti of The Washington Post reported:

Cook at times seemed to plead ignorance on key aspects of Apple’s business. For instance, he said he couldn’t remember the exact price Google pays Apple to remain the default search engine on iPhones. “You don’t know whether it’s upwards of $10 billion?” Bornstein asked him. “I don’t know,” Cook answered.

What might prove part of a strong legal defense is a damning indictment of corporate leadership. To admit that you don’t know whether your company made a $10 billion dollar transaction shows that you are either: not all that aware of what’s going on at your company, or wildly tone-deaf in the belief that such a large number is “forgettable.”1

Cook’s incompetence or naïveté, whether feigned or not, is indicative of the broader theme of corporate dissonance.2 Owners, executives, and leaders are “in charge,” but seemingly incapable of the empathy required to captain the ship.

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In 2013, Psychology Today published an article titled “The Golden Rule of Leadership” by Thuy Sindell, Ph.D. and Milo Sindell, M.S. Together they penned:

Leaders who understand that leading others is a privilege understand that leading, first and foremost, is about service.

This should be the mantra of everyone who holds a leadership role at an importer or distributor. However, because most wine and spirit companies are run by their founders, the fallacy of “I know best because I started this company” is pervasive; further, this mindset stifles innovation, diversity, and ultimately success.

When past achievement is conflated with solid leadership, it blinds an organization to core tenets of what we actually know makes good leaders—respect, humility, service, gratitude, and humor.3 These aren’t usually the traits called for in job ads for managers and executives. Find me the HR manager that uses all five of these words in a job description and I’ll seriously buy you a drink.

For those companies that do concern themselves with continually strengthening their organization, here are five sources of employee disillusionment and how to avoid them:

  1. Management says it values process, but only measures results. If the process is what matters, trust in it. Make sure there’s compliance to the process. In the short term, know that good numbers don’t always reflect good processes and vice versa. In the long term, good processes will yield better results.

  2. Management says it values the customer (when it’s convenient). Don’t leave customer service to chance or at the mercy of a manager for whom the issue will likely never reach. Empower employees to make the decisions necessary to right wrongs and correct errors. This will require granting trained, entry-level employees a certain level of autonomy. This should be defined and have limits; still, waiving a $10 fee should be within anyone’s right to fix a problem.

  3. Management believes it doesn’t have to justify its decisions. Technically, this is true, but is it wise to have your employees question your judgment? In being transparent about how you arrived at an important decision, you’re more likely to gain allies and advocates if you’re reasoning is sound. As the best math teachers like to say, “show your work and you’ll get credit, even if you aren’t right.”

  4. Management makes decisions by attrition. Tom Petty was right when he belted, “Waiting is the hardest part.” We’ve all been witness to good and bad ideas and initiatives that died on the vine. Well, limbo is still a part of hell. Refusing to decide is worse than making a bad decision because it shows that you don’t care. Managers shouldn’t expect more from their employees than they are willing to give. The least they should give is a shit.

  5. Management has the inability to maintain focus on the long-term. Leaders shouldn’t be making decisions at low levels of the organization’s hierarchy. A CEO can’t share the same time horizon as a manager and a manager can’t the share time horizon as a salesperson or customer service rep.4 Tim Hockney, CEO and President of TD Ameritrade describes it best:

The basic premise is organizational hierarchies, the levels of an organization, six, seven, eight, nine whatever it is, they all depend on what sort of time horizon you have. So, if you’re a bank teller, you’ve got a time horizon of one day, right? It’s your shift.

If you are processing a piece of paper as an administrator, it’s a one-day time horizon. If you’re an entry-level supervisor, that second level, then it’s a very short period of time probably a week, maybe a couple of weeks. As you go up the organization, your time horizon has to shift out.

So, if you go… six, seven levels in the organization, you can have a time horizon of saying how do I transform the institutional business with five to 10 years of time horizon.

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1

Before anyone accuses me of being denominator-blind and saying that $10 billion is a pittance for a company as large as Apple, shame on you. I have 99.99% of humanity I’d like to introduce you to. Furthermore, $10 billion per year still represents over 3.5% of Apple’s annual revenue (for their 2020 financial year).

2

I’m certainly far from the first person to call out the fact that many so-called corporate leaders are out of touch with the reality lived by both their employees and customers. It’s something that Bernie Sanders and Jeffrey Immelt, former CEO of General Electric, have agreed on for years.

3

These tenets are drawn from the same “The Golden Rule of Leadership” article by Sindell and Sindell.

4

This is not the same as saying that a sales rep shouldn’t maintain focus on the long-term when it comes to their relationships with their customers.