Spetner: Everyone is human, even senior management

While it's easy to understand the behaviors required for success, we often disregard them and get enticed or derailed by several human emotions.

I spent a few years of my career overseeing R&D at a global executive search firm. I managed a staff of more than a dozen clinical and behavioral psychologists who studied and synthesized data on why executives succeed and fail.

They could tell you what the most critical competencies were for climbing the organizational ladder and thriving in corporate life. They could also identify the specific personality traits of senior executives that would most likely cause them to derail.

I learned that scientists can tell you the specific competencies that are most crucial for promotion at each phase of your career. So why doesn’t everyone just study the data and become CEO? The best explanation for this conundrum came to me through a story I heard from a cultural anthropologist named Clotaire Rapaille.

As Clotaire tells it, he was lecturing at Stanford University and struck up a conversation with an engineering student after class. During the chat, the student exclaimed: "By the way Professor, I’m going to get married." "Congratulations!" said Clotaire, "did you set a date?"

"No," said the student, "I haven’t actually met a girl yet. But I have made a list of the 13 specifications I need for the perfect bride."

"That’s very impressive," Clotaire said, "good luck with that."

A few years later, they met again on campus, and the student excitedly said: "Professor, I’m engaged to be married."

"Really? You actually met someone?" replied Clotaire.        

"Yes," the student said. "And she met all 13 specifications?" the professor asked with some skepticism.

 "No," the student replied, "she didn’t meet any of them."

Clotaire then asked why they were getting married if the bride lacked all the crucial specs.

"It’s simple," said the student, "we are in love."

This story reinforces the notion that the decisions we make are not always rational, and that sometimes this works out well for us, and, sometimes not so much.

So while it’s easy to understand the behaviors required for success, we often disregard them and get enticed or derailed by several human emotions: Desire, ambition, insecurity, anger, and many more forces that impact our ability to see and think clearly.

Early in my career, I was asked to join a committee that was part of our company’s philanthropic activities. My job was to solicit grant applications from staff for their favorite charities, which the committee would then review and recommend for funding.

One of the grant submissions seemed like a no-brainer for funding. It was for a medical foundation dedicated to combating a serious disease, and one of our employees was a member of the foundation’s board. I made a recommendation to fund it. Much to my surprise, our head of US sales, who was chair of our committee, vehemently rejected the request and angrily told me to withdraw the application.

I was stunned. I couldn’t understand his anger or his strong opposition to funding the grant.

After the meeting, a team member explained the mystery. The employee who submitted the application had been in a heated political battle with our committee chair two years ago, and behaved badly during the process. Apparently my colleague had not gotten over it. And so, he demanded we reject the proposal by his political nemesis.

That day, I learned an important lesson about corporate life: Everyone is human, even senior management. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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