The Second Agenda: Why No Executive Should Ever Have One

Sometimes leaders have second agendas:

  • CEO:  I want to win for my shareholders and prove I can take a company public.
  • Founder:  I want to win for my shareholders and destroy the great evil at Microsoft.
  • Volleyball coach:  I want to win the league and prove to the world that I can convert an average outside hitter into a great libero.
  •  CMO:  I want to beat the plan targets and develop my protege.

I’m going to argue that in basically all cases these are bad.  Why?  Because when a leader has two primary agendas they can come into conflict.

  • The CEO will turn down a potentially great buy-out offer because he/she personally wants to ring the bell at the NYSE.
  • The Founder will turn down a fantastic deal from Microsoft because he does not want to do business with the great (perceived) evil.
  • The volleyball coach might lose the game by not playing the best players to win it.
  • The CMO might miss plan targets by focusing more on his/her protege than on delivering MQLs to sales.

This is, of course, not to argue that leaders can only focus on one goal.  Running a company requires a whole set of goals that map across the organization.  But leaders should have one mission, one cause, one agenda:  to win.

Any other agenda, no matter how well intentioned will eventually come into conflict with winning and start to tear the team apart.

  • Investors find out a prospective buyer was snuffed without due consideration and lose trust in the CEO (and potentially either fire or sue him/her).
  • The Founder ends up distanced by his organization which now sees him as fighting religious wars instead of running a business.  Employees leave because they wonder what other great deals won’t be pursued for non-business reasons.  (Think:  Yahoo!)
  • The volleyball coach is seen as subjective and someone who “plays favorites” and thus fails to recruit top players to his/her team in following years.
  • The CMO is seen as political and his team starts to distrust his motivations for assigning projects, leading to general distrust on the team, and the loss of several key players.

I remember one day, years ago, when I felt that our CEO had not been loyal enough to a teammate.  I thought “that’s shitty, he prioritized winning over loyalty to a long-term colleague.”  And then I thought some more.  And then I realized that’s exactly the kind of CEO you want to work for.

I’m not saying we should treat people as disposable and that loyalty shouldn’t exist.  Managers should be creative and try to find win/win solutions to issues with employees.  But when you can’t, when there appears to be no win/win to be had then no secondary agenda* — even loyalty — should trump the leader’s primary objective.

# # #

* Obviously I view things like “ethics” and “the law” not as secondary agendas, but as constraints on the solution.

2 responses to “The Second Agenda: Why No Executive Should Ever Have One

  1. (1) Isn’t this just an elaborate rephrasing of “CEOs should do their jobs”?
    (2) There’s always going to be some tradeoff between “your job” and “your life” — aren’t you therefore saying (to some extent) “Executives shouldn’t have a life”?

    • Yes and no. I wrote the post because I have consistently seen CEOs and other leaders derailed/defocused by second-agendas, such as the ones I list (e.g., I want to do an IPO, I never will sell to Microsoft, I want to tee up my protegee, I want to prove something, I want to be famous, I want to enable a second-career in politics, …)

      Having a life I’m OK with. Having a second agenda, or better put, second primary agenda is a mistake. We were luck during our time at BOBJ that I believe Bernard never had one — he just wanted to win. And we did.

      Best,
      Dave

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s