3 More Sure-Fire Signs You're Failing as an Executive Leader

You probably don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning, bright and chipper, and says, “I’m looking forward to failing today.”

But failure happens to all of us.

You make mistakes, you overlook the obvious, or you miss an important piece of information you need to make a key decision.

The good news is that if you can see the signs, you can avert failure. We discussed three of these signs previously: 1) you’re rapidly losing market share, 2) your old strategy isn’t working anymore, and 3) your customer service is terrible.

What follows are three more signs that will help you stay on the road to success.

Instead of driving over the cliff.

Sign #4: Cutting corners is a way of life

Of all the company scandals that have happened in the past decade, Enron is the poster child.

Maybe cutting corners started with Enron managers who did so to make their numbers.

They started small. A little fudging of the books wouldn’t hurt.

Just this one time.

But one time turned into thousands and eventually the whole house of cards collapsed.

Key takeaway: Just don’t do it—don’t cut corners.

And don’t accept anyone on your team doing it.

When cutting corners becomes standard practice, you’ll always look for the easy way, which may not be the right way. Over time, the hole you’ll dig will be a prison—perhaps literally—of your own making.

Bend your ethics and you’ve taken the on ramp to failure.

One thing you can do to avoid failure: Set the example and keep your professional and personal standards high. Accept only the best behavior and performance.

Back-up your personal example with clearly articulated corporate standards and policies for ethical conduct. Use audits, inspections, and legal reviews to give you a concrete idea of where you stand.

By doing so, you’ll go a long way toward preventing those cut corners.

Sign #5: You overhear people talking about how they hate coming to work

If your employees hate coming to work, join the club.

According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 70% of U.S. employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.”

In other words, they hate their jobs.

I’ll give you one guess — what do you think the key driver for employee engagement is?


Yes, you.

Research shows that you are directly responsible for 30% of employee engagement. The number goes up another 30% when you add the influence a leader has in providing resources and support to the team.

Let’s look at this another way. How would you like working for this company?

- Weekly staff meetings were known as the “Monday Morning Beatings.” The main purpose was to call attention to some failure and then publicly berate the person(s) the boss deemed to be responsible for it.

- On other occasions, the boss would show up for a surprise inspection. Like a drill sergeant, he’d do a white-glove inspection by running his finger on the top of picture frames. Any dust meant a deduction or even dismissal.

- One employee said, “Working there was like being in a cult.”

This was the legacy HealthSouth Corporation under its founder and CEO…who was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to jail time. Care to surmise what employee engagement was like?

Key Takeaway: You’re accountable for employee engagement. If your team is not engaged, you’re failing.

One thing you can do to avoid failure: Create a climate conducive to having engaged employees. Show your people that you care—take the time to say thank you.

Even better, do it in front of their peers. Be sincere and include your personal touch.

Also, institute periodic organizational climate surveys and engagement assessments that will provide you with hard data to judge how well you’re doing.

Make sure you rinse and repeat—employee engagement is hard work.

Sign #6: Complaints to HR are at an all-time high

Admit it.

You’ve complained.

In some ways, complaining is as natural as the air you breathe.  It’s also a way of letting off steam and clearing your emotions.

However, things start getting dicey when the same complaints don’t go away or increase in number. Also, a high level of complaints might indicate poor employee engagement and low overall job satisfaction…both of which negatively impact organizational performance.

Things really start getting serious when harassment, discrimination, theft, and violence come into to the picture. If these events are handled improperly, the results can be morale-killing, dangerous, and costly.

A couple of examples of what can happen when things get out of control are:

- In 2010, Novartis agreed to pay as much as $152.5 million to settle a gender-discrimination class action brought by female workers.

- In 2012, Mercy General Hospital (Sacramento, CA) was directed to pay $168 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit judgment.

Those are real consequences and real money.

Key Takeaway: Deal with complaints squarely. Whatever you do, don’t ignore them.

One thing you can do to prevent failure: Set up a formal process for employees to report complaints. If warranted, bring in someone impartial from outside the organization to do an investigation.

Expecting to eliminate all complaints is unrealistic, but you can avert leadership failure by slowing down the revolving door.

The Upshot of These Sure-Fire Signs of Failure

Although failure is part and parcel of your leadership journey, don’t actively seek it out or allow it to happen—especially when you can do something about it.

All of these areas of failures can be avoided, and if you find yourself trapped in one of them, you can turn it around.

These warning signs—if appreciated for what they are—can protect you from disaster and keep you on the road to leadership success.

If you see any of them percolating in your organization, move out and take action now!


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