5 Ways to Combat Sexual Harassment at Nonprofits

The moment has come for nonprofits to reckon with the sexual harassment that until all too recently has been swept under the carpet. In recent weeks, allegations of repulsive behavior have rippled through nonprofits, just as in government, tech, business, and elsewhere.

The American Red Cross made the dreadful misstep of unloading a senior executive accused of multiple harassment incidents by sending him on his way to Save the Children with a glowing recommendation. And the Humane Society of the United States saw seven board members step down over the organization’s handling of allegations of misconduct by the chief executive, who resigned a few hours after the board voted to keep him on the job. Arts and culture organizations and colleges and universities have also seen top leaders toppled by allegations of misconduct.

More revelations are almost certainly coming. Only the most naïve would believe that nonprofits exist in a rarified and exemplary world, immune from abusive behaviors. After all, the balance of power in the nonprofit workplace often leads to abuses of all kinds. And tolerance of sexual misconduct is exacerbated by the reality that men hold most of the positions of authority in the nonprofit world, with women in supportive and de facto more vulnerable roles.

That’s why executive directors and boards must establish far more effective approaches if they plan to deliver on the promise of zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies. What can boards and CEOs do to ensure that their actions prevent this abuse, and—when it happens—how can they respond in a way that will also leave their organizations stronger? Here are some key steps to take immediately.

Give boards a new mandate: Be stewards of the culture.

We’ve seen over the decades a widening of roles for nonprofit boards. Fiduciary responsibilities have taken overwhelming prominence, and, while this includes mitigation of risk factors (like lawsuits), boards focus on being the guardians of tangible assets.

Creating a strategic partnership with management has become as important. Two decades ago many boards became influenced by Harvard scholar Richard Chait’s advice to go beyond questions of strategy, staying high above the weeds. They begin asking larger "why" questions that are often not directly related to the present but offer insights on challenges and opportunities.

Although I believe strongly that all three roles are essential, I now advocate for a fourth.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced many smart, high-functioning boards assuming the role of cultural steward. They realize boards must ultimately be responsible for maintaining a performance-driven, talent-focused, and innovative culture so that the organization does not get swallowed up by disruptions that cause their donor or membership bases to flee, and they do not allow a mission to become obsolete.

They also understand that an obsessive focus on culture prevents aberrant behaviors. And while the CEO must be responsible for carrying out the processes required to wrangle a culture into alignment, an increasing number of boards hold themselves ultimately accountable for this.

To be clear: The board as cultural steward is not merely about risk management (though this becomes an advantageous benefit). It’s about creating a healthy and productive environment that stops or stems sexual harassment as well as providing a plethora of other payoffs when boards take on the mantle. Look deeply into many of the organizations where sexual harassment runs rampant, and you will find elements of a toxic culture.

Stop giving rainmakers a pass.

Many nonprofits have key individuals who play an essential role in their organization’s success.

At times, but certainly not always, this is the CEO. As The Washington Post and The New York Times reported recently, the board influence—and charisma—of the Humane Society’s CEO, Wayne Pacelle, is merely one case in point. He was a rainmaker, a dealmaker extraordinaire in creating mergers, affiliations, and corporate partnerships. His deal-making prowess may have endeared him so profoundly to his board that they may not have been able to accept allegations of his aberrant behaviors. They stopped the investigation on him midstream.

Rainmakers have inordinate talent and influence to generate revenue, or they are seen as essential to the mission. In their own ways, they are exceptional, groundbreaking, and often charismatic. But out of fear of alienating these rainmakers, nonprofits too often seem blind to the ways they give them free passes. Rainmakers can be exempt from accountability to the formal rules, policies, and codes of conduct required of everyone else. It remains an unspoken dynamic.

Take the dramatic example from the corporate world, where the term originated. Citibank’s former CEO, John Reed, made a daring move to rein in a dozen errant rainmakers, despite their power to bring hundred-million-dollar deals to the bank. The problem: Their behavior was abusive to anyone who worked with them. Reed gave them a stern warning and offered executive coaching. When their behavior did not change, he gave them a second warning. The rainmakers assumed that their value to the bank guaranteed their immunity, since nothing consequential had ever happened when they broke code-of-conduct rules.

As he had promised, Reed fired them all. The power of this action showed the lengths he was willing to go to in enforcing civil behavior and change the informal, get-out-of-jail-free passes that one element of the culture had allowed. Are your rainmakers models of the behavior you expect from everyone? If not, take strong action.

Rethink the role of HR.

Nonprofit leadership must question the process by which those who are aggrieved seek safety and recourse, since the HR function in far too many cases can no longer provide it. A regressive drift over the past two decades has taken too many HR departments back to the days of transactional "personnel" function. We seem to have forgotten that when "human resources" became the function’s new name, it also embraced a deep commitment to represent the needs of employees, balancing an advocacy role while finally becoming a key part of the leadership team.

Victims coming forward have voiced how HR aggravated their sense of victimization when they did not feel believed or no action was taken. A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that "75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation."

The #MeToo moment has illuminated how HR is broken in too many nonprofits. Far from advocating for employees, HR leaders and their staff are increasingly ignoring, refusing to act, or inadequately addressing sexual harassment complaints. And this has led women in particular to stop trusting a department that ostensibly was established to protect them. Alternatives exist and are being adopted.

The first step to finding the best-fit solution is to acknowledge whether HR’s processes, reporting structure, and level of power are adequate to deal with this lightning-rod issue.

If not, consider truly independent and trustworthy resources outside the organization.

Question how much power you’re giving to external counsel.

Undeniably, sexual harassment is a legal-risk issue for any organization, with profound potential implications. But sending in the lawyers to investigate complaints or to conduct audits does not lead to a robust long-term organizational solution.

My respect for colleagues in the legal profession runs deep. But when their work steps over the line to conduct organizational assessments, requiring the mapping of power, influence, communications, and culture, the lens through which they look at these "soft" causes of bad behavior can be a limited one.

Organization development professionals engender deep trust in staff members and can quickly assess culture and culpability. They engage in far more solution-driven conversations with all parties to identify not only problem people but also problem processes and dynamics. When these professionals have dual-reporting accountability to the CEO and the board, while still maintaining a close relationship with HR, their insights can reshape troubled dynamics.

Find the levers that place pressure on men to speak out about the uncivil behaviors of other men.

When better codes of cultural conduct become part of everyday behavior, the men’s club will no longer protect the abuser. Time is up for leaving the burden solely on women to protect their female colleagues. Men must call out other men. If they know of egregious behaviors and do not act, there must be painful consequences.

With these fresh approaches to responsibility and transparency in the culture, nonprofit organizations can become not only irreproachable in the public eye, but also better and more empowering places to work. Let’s make 2018 the year to advance workplace equity, fairness, and safety.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on February 13, 2018.

Don’t Learn from Your Mistakes—“Apologize” Instead!

2017 has been a banner year for mean man apologies, and we still have one more quarter to go. A fertile source of recent apologies stems from Silicon Valley’s self-reckoning of sexual harassment, kicked off by ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler’s now-legendary February blog post. As noted in my prior post, the company failed to address Fowler’s case of harassment, fueled by a persistently sexist company culture. Two public apologies, of the five examined in more detail below, were issued in reaction to the subsequent call by women in tech and women entrepreneurs to bring harassers to justice and name the sexism for what it is.

To be clear, not everyone is apologizing. As the latest manifestation of white male privilege in the Valley, ex-Google employee James Damore, fired for his now infamous memo detailing in part how women are biologically less fit for tech work, subsequently told the Wall Street Journal that his memo wasn’t problematic, the consequences were.  But the tech world is not the only one in which mean men are being forced to answer for their behavior. In Hollywood, in the US House race, and in a Brooklyn courtroom, some mean men are being held to account.

Others expect a public statement to make it all better. Even when they occur, there is something disturbing about these “apologies.” It isn’t merely these individuals’ refusal to take responsibility, which we have seen again and again in mean men across industries (but most prominently in tech). No, it is even more so our willingness to allow a few well-chosen, PR-motivated, and artfully-framed phrases to erase the bad behavior and in some cases, crimes.

We have entered the era of the postmodern apology. When powerful men screw up, they perform what is at best a meaningless, socially enforced ritual and at worst a calculated ploy to regain the exercise of power at others’ expense. Whereas genuine apologies seek to repair the damage done to victims, the damage-control apology so popular today belies a complete lack of empathy and serves only to aggrandize the mean man.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the apologies themselves to clue us in to the magnitude of their egregious behaviors. Here are but five examples.

Chris Sacca: The Glamourpology

This remarkable piece of rhetoric serves as this series’ longest apology, clocking in at a whopping 2500+ words with an addendum bringing the total up to nearly 3000. Just look at the sentence that introduces his original apology post: “The words that follow are my heartfelt process for reconciliation and growing the work I have been doing for years to bring about permanent change in our industry and our lives.” Oh, wait, you’re giving us a list of accomplishments? You’d think he’s been awarded a Nobel and is warming up to his acceptance speech… The actual apology waters down harassment into nothing more than “[making] some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged.” But what’s truly shocking is just how much time Sacca spends discussing all his contributions to women since his days of youthful bro-ing about—at least two-thirds of the “apology.” Thanks so much for all you’ve done, Chris!

Dave McClure: The Creepology

Most notable about McClure’s post is the repeated use of “inappropriate behavior” to stand in for harassment as well as the de-personalization of the women he’s victimized. As pointed out by founder Cheryl Yeoh, whom he cornered in an empty apartment when the two were in an investor-investee relationship, such language minimizes and covers up what really happened. McClure is not quite as masterful as Sacco at self-aggrandizement nor does he claim that he’s really changed. His tack is to admit his “imperfections” openly and appeal to people’s sympathy, like Radiohead’s “Creep” does so well.

Greg Gianforte: The Stratepology

Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte’s apology was most notable for its timing. Let’s go over the order of events. The Honorable Congressman Gianforte:

  1. Body slams Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs upon being asked a question about healthcare.
  2. Has his office release a statement that alleges provocateur liberal reporter Ben Jacobs started trouble and that Gianforte stood up to him.
  3. Rides conservative media coverage of him as a hero willing to stand up to “snowflake” Millennial liberals all the way to victory in the US House of Representatives.
  4. Apologizes without naming his wrongdoing directly during his acceptance speech, to overwhelming applause from a room of devoted supporters.

Michael Einfeld: The Abomination

Nothing comes quite close to the emetic nature of Michael Einfeld’s apology for a violently misogynistic email about his female assistant. In his cellphone text apology to her, he manages to use a gay slur and joke about Holocaust extermination camps both extensively and in disturbing detail. What distinguishes this apology from the others on this list is its intended private nature. It was not prepared by a team of publicists and strategists, but instead dashed off by a guy who thought this series of texts would smooth things over. Is this a good indication of what other mean-man apologies would sound like without PR intervention?

Martin Shkreli: The Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Happen

The smirk on disgraced former pharma CEO Shkreli’s face during trial is emblematic of this mean man’s refusal to admit he’s done any wrong. He indicated with his winks and frowns to the press that the whole trial was a joke, and called it a “witch hunt.” Even as evidence of his ruthlessness piled up in court—including violent threats to employees and their families— Shkreli played it cool, as though the whole thing was a Soviet show trial, a mere formality orchestrated by his enemies.

As Shkreli bends reality around him with his jester performance, he creates a parallel universe where none of what he’s done has anything to do with his forthcoming sentence. It’s us who should be apologizing to him.


For all the mean men yet to issue hollow and insincere apologies in 2017, I’ve put together a handy guide to help:

The Official 2017 Mean Man Apology Guide:

  1. Use Vague Language: Be imprecise when naming the behaviors that you are sorry for. Or just keep your mouth shut and ignore everything.
  2. Diffuse Responsibility: Whether it’s society, ignorance, bro-culture, being an asshole who can’t spell, or being the victim of a witch hunt, make sure you have something to blame. But be careful to not start blaming someone. You’ll just have to repeat the cycle all over again.
  3. Change Focus/Flatter Yourself: In some cases, it becomes necessary to shift focus away from the wrongdoing and toward one’s accomplishments or sudden enlightenment. One powerful way to change focus is to deny wrongdoing entirely. Yes, you, too can create a Jobsian “reality distortion field.” Be just like Steve!
  4. Watch the Timing: Apologize only when beneficial for one’s public image. If at all possible, avoid apologizing entirely, but if you must, use time to your advantage. Do not consider whether timing will ameliorate the hurt caused to the victim. That’s not the point of your apology in the first place.

Women Are Leading the Takedown of Silicon Valley’s Mean Men

It’s not just summer ratcheting up the heat in Silicon Valley, where more power players are in the hot seat as dozens of women allege persistent sexual harassment. Their testimonies are further exposing a toxic culture in start-ups—and particularly tech—wherein untouchable men are allowed to touch women without their consent.

In a June 22 interview with The Information, entrepreneurs Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu revealed VC Justin Caldbeck’s persistent harassment and use of financial leverage to exert sexual pressure on female entrepreneurs. Another twenty-some women spoke to The New York Times the following week, naming VCs Dave McClure and Chris Sacca in addition to Caldbeck as notorious harassers. Finally, in a personal blog post, tech founder Cheryl Yeoh demolished McClure’s public blog apology, which conflated harassment with “inappropriate behavior.” In an all-too-familiar refrain, he minimized—and attempted to normalize—the severity of a predatory pattern. 

A sign that the scandal rocking the Valley has entered mainstream consciousness is that six of the women entrepreneurs at its center have met with NBC’s Megyn Kelly for in-depth interviews. They credited their confidence to come forward to Susan Fowler’s February 2017 blog post recounting her harrowing year at Uber.

In her post, Fowler methodically chronicles the Kafkaesque futility of using the company’s official channels to report the abuse. In one interaction after another, she is threatened with poor work performance reviews and assured that if any other complaints are lodged against the perpetrator—her manager, who propositioned her on her first day—swift action would be taken. But no action is ever taken against the harasser, despite the smoldering pile of allegations that seemed to get extinguished by the time they were being processed at Uber’s HR offices.

Her post has resonated with women across the tech and start-up community, encouraging more to come forward despite potential retaliation. But what, or who, is responsible for this scourge in the first place?

There is plenty of blame to go around. As I examine in my forthcoming book, Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, the media, investors, and Wall Street analysts have had a long love affair with abusive entrepreneurs and CEOs so long as they deliver results, even if those results are not sustainable. Given our culture’s willingness to look past glaring flaws in our political leaders from Jefferson to Trump, it is not surprising we’re just as enamored with men we perceive as responsible for our country’s (alleged) prosperity.

When Susan Fowler knocked over that first domino, she set off a series of events that have taken on a life of their own. Her dispassionate account of a “very strange year at Uber” both validated other women in tech—60% of whom have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace—and contributed to Travis Kalanick’s eventual ousting, which sent its own reassuring signals to women in tech and female entrepreneurs. Although some still excuse or minimize the problem, and others quietly grumble behind closed doors about the “witch hunt” thinning their ranks, 2017 has seen a step in the right direction.

A la Fowler, the women coming forwardpresent in-depth accounts of the sexual harassment they have experienced. Some are naming names and some are corroborating stories with screenshots of particularly egregious instances of mean men overstepping their bounds. Providing specific details assures that no perpetrator can hide behind vague language and euphemism to disguise predatory behavior as a simple misunderstanding. “The devil is in the details,” Cheryl Yeoh blogs. “It’s far too easy to gloss over the details and lump everything together as inappropriate.” To escape what she calls “the black box of inappropriateness,” she outlines an action plan for the development of precise language to better identify and document levels of toxic behavior as well as a rigorous training program on implementing proactive HR policies. In fact, in addition to outing mean men and demanding they take responsibility for predatory behavior, women across the tech and start-up sectors are demanding a future where such abuses would be the exception rather than the rule.

We do see some movement. Amid the flurry of recent accusations, founders Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure resigned from their positions of CEO of Binary Capital and general partner at 500 respectively. These changes certainly signal a recognition that predatory behavior hurts the bottom line not the least through bad publicity. But are they a sign of a more inclusive vision for the future?

It is likely that these new accounts and the reckonings they bring about will help other women to come forward. The truth telling in turn means more mean men are forced to grapple with the harm they have caused to people and to their companies, bettering our chances of reimagining Silicon Valley as a place where creativity and innovation are not marred by abuse, skewed gender dynamics, and unchecked power.

The self-reckoning forced on Silicon Valley by these new testimonies is a good in and of itself for the sake of women and their well-being. Importantly, it may also be the catalyst toward a more stringent standard of behavior from the bro entrepreneurial culture. Women in tech and start-ups have sparked a national conversation on the expectations we have of our business and tech leaders. But it is up to Silicon Valley power players to take a more proactive approach to codifying expected behaviors and what will be unambiguously unacceptable from this point on. 

Why Defending Travis Kalanick Is Lame

In the wake of Uber’s slow-motion implosion and Travis Kalanick’s forced resignation as CEO, some supporters have set out to defend one of Silicon Valley’s more beleaguered “bad boys.” Current and former Uber employees showed an outpouring of love and devotion across blogs and social media; company managers urged their underlings to sign a petition for the board to reinstate him; former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayor spoke up for him at an event in Palo Alto; and reporter Alison Griswold praised Kalanick’s behavior, calling it necessary to creating a multibillion-dollar ride-hailing empire in such a short timeframe and revolutionizing the way people get around.

Digesting these arguments made me realize how far we still have to go in terms of holding men in positions of power responsible for their meanness. So often we focus on their miraculous achievements—whether it’s a profoundly disruptive innovation or a moment of singular leadership through crisis. And shouldn’t we? Men of great power have pushed society forward and led us in new directions. (Women have done the same; they just rarely get the pass for irresponsible or destructive behavior.) We venerate powerful men for their vision and feel dependent on them to initiate progress.

Far too often, however, we willingly look past glaring pitfalls for the sake of keeping the vision alive. The reaction to Kalanick's ouster demonstrates perfectly this phenomenon. Here is my rebuttal to a few members of the TK Fan Club and their justifications for his brand of mean:

Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo
Justification: Kalanick was ignorant of sexist and toxic company culture due to Uber’s explosive expansion.
Quote: “I think he’s a phenomenal leader… I just don’t think he knew. When your company scales that quickly, it’s hard.”
Analysis: There are a couple of major flaws to the ignorance defense. Firstly, there is near unanimous consent that Kalanick “built the company in his own image.” His own personal philosophy about always winning, codified in Uber’s 14 Values, was a founding principle that shaped the company culture. While Uber’s extralegal tactics shot the hail-riding service into the Silicon Stratosphere, they also trickled down as an ends-justify-the-means ethos. The way that HR ignored Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment complaint in favor of keeping a “high performer” is merely an extension of this single-minded pursuit of the Uber vision.

Secondly, how can a CEO claim ignorance of company culture when aligning culture to values that support sustainable growth is an essential element of the job? In calling TK a “phenomenal leader,” Mayer sweeps much under the rug. Flouting local laws to get cars on the road faster across cities in the US and elsewhere would—in other situations—be called “law breaking.” What about the inappropriate emails sent to employees about drinking and having sex while at company parties? What about violating the right to privacy of a victim of sexual assault? What about the damning blog post by Susan Fowler calling out HR’s incompetence at handling sexual harassment cases, a sentiment seconded by other female ex-employees? You “don’t think he knew,” Ms. Mayer? While Kalanick clearly has significant strengths—and he may not have gotten the company off the ground without them—his weaknesses are just as tangible.

Alison Griswold, Quartz Journalist
Uber is great precisely due to Kalanick’s brash, authority- defying personality and leadership style.
Quote: “Kalanick’s role in getting Uber into those cities and onto those phones first cannot be understated. Regardless of whether Uber, still a private company, was ever truly worth the $68 billion investors said it was, the company could not have attained that valuation without him.”
Analysis: In her June 22, 2017, article for Quartz, “There Would Be No Uber without Travis Kalanick,” Griswold argues that TK is responsible for Uber’s incredible business success. But she also admits that the very brashness that has given Uber such monumental stature in the ride-hailing revolution is the reason for its mounting troubles. Her argument then rests on a short-sighted definition of success. As I discuss in Mean Men, this short-sighted view is the norm rather than the exception. So willing are the many investors, board members, executives, and the media to see start-ups get big fast, that ignoring predictable, and often dire, consequences of unethical and toxic leadership practices comes at a significant cost to sustainable growth. Since it is just as true to say that TK is responsible for the current state of affairs at Uber, which includes major controversy and law suits, puts the company’s greatness is in serious question, and that too is a reflection on Kalanick’s leadership.

Some Uber Employees
Justification: Kalanick was an inspirational figure who embraced employee ideas and uncompromisingly pursued a brave vision of the future.
Quote: “Uber is fundamentally reshaping people’s transportation habits and how they interact with their cities. This kind of impact would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but we’ve made it a reality—thanks to your vision. So, thank you. We’ve mis-stepped at times—I’ll be the first to admit that Uber is not perfect. But the positive impact you’ve had on this company, and the world, is truly inspirational.”—Margaret Anne Seger, junior project manager
Analysis: Many employees were incredibly inspired and personally touched by Kalanick’s leadership, as the outpouring on social media after the ousting demonstrates. Clearly, TK had a way of connecting with people that made them want to follow him and invest in him. The employee testimonials almost universally praise this quality, speaking of the former CEO in glowing terms. In fact, a look at the word choice across posts offers some deeper insight. One employee uses the word “disciples” to describe TK’s supporters within Uber; another thanks him for his “guiding light”; several write in a chanting rhythm, beginning every sentence with a thank you; most are “heartbroken” by his departure. Notice the religious tone? Getting a little bit creeped out? It is not uncommon for a leader with mean-man characteristics to also be highly charismatic. Examples abound— from maverick Steve Jobs with his unpredictable temper to instigator Trump and his Make-America-Great-Again rhetoric which captured the hearts of the disenfranchised. Intense charisma—especially that which inspires an unwavering following in a select group of individuals—is a warning sign that we may be in the company of a Mean Man.

Some Uber Managers
Kalanick’s ousting is the result of the board bowing to an unfairly critical press; it does not represent the wishes of the employees, and should therefore be reversed.
Quote: “Uber is TK and TK is Uber. Without him I don’t see any other leader doing a job as good as him, external or internal.”—Uber manager (quoted in Buzzfeed article)
Analysis: Shortly following Kalanick’s forced resignation a number of Uber managers urged underlings to take action in defense of TK with the aim of pressuring the Board to reinstate the ousted CEO. They encouraged employees to email Board members Arianna Huffington, Garrett Camp and Bill Gurley and register discontent in an anonymous petition. Similar to social media posts of employee support, emails sent by managers to employees have a reverential tone toward TK with an additional desperate edge because they are also a call to action. What’s more problematic is the dynamic of people in a position of power arguing for a mini-rebellion from those in their employ against those who employ them (the Board). This act echoes the accusations of a bullying culture leveled against Uber by former employees, including Susan Fowler, wherein a dysfunctional HR department repeatedly fails to provide checks and balances to unduly exercised authority.

Chew on one BuzzFeed reader’s incisive comment about the managerial emails sent to staff members: “Managers are sending petitions to employees. Doesn't that tell you enough about the culture to run away as fast as you can? ‘Oh no pressure, and no worries that this will affect your next performance review, but would you mind signing this petition?’”

We cannot continue to praise the good without recognizing the ineffective, bad, or worse. Continuing to deify the Kalanicks of the start-up world will not bring us better leaders; it just perpetuates the status quo. I have no problem with power, and the amount of it many CEOs hold. But we have a responsibility to hold powerful men fully accountable for its misuse if we hope to see better leadership in the future.



Political Beliefs and CEO Pay

During the creation of my blog post on the next generation of women leaders, I’d expected the dawning of a new era for women leaders, and with this in mind, I wrote about the obstacles that women leaders face after they’ve made it to the top. But, despite predictions, our nation’s highest glass ceiling was not shattered last November. Of course, that post still applies to women CEOs around the world, even if not to our president-elect. Regardless of personal politics, it is obvious that the race to win the position of America’s CEO illustrated some intriguing differences between what Republicans and Democrats value in their leaders. If we wanted to drastically simplify the aims of each party, we could simply look to their candidates’ books. For instance, the title of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village says it all: today’s Democrats cherish social justice and equality. Likewise, Donald Trump’s titles The Art of the Deal and How to Get Rich could provide a snapshot of what today’s Republicans prize: individualism and free markets. So while some of us were outraged when Trump’s response to Clinton’s observation that he had rooted for the housing crisis was, “That’s called business,” others of us thought such a stance denoted strong leadership.

According to Abhinav Gupta and Adam J. Wowak’s 2016 article “The Elephant (or Donkey) in the Boardroom: How Board Political Ideology Affects CEO Pay,” this diverging of ethos isn’t confined to the political realm. In fact, the business decisions made by a company’s board are just as tied to ideology. And when it comes to leadership and compensation, research shows that conservatives tend to hold the CEO responsible for a company’s success, and so they pay him or her in a way that reflects that perceived worth (i.e.: more). Liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe that the company’s success comes from a team effort—it takes a village—and the company’s spending, including the CEO’s paycheck, reflects that feeling (i.e.: the CEO is paid less). Perhaps this contributes to the fact that, according to CNBC, “the average pay for an S&P 500 CEO was $12.4 million in 2015, or 335 times the pay of a rank-and-file worker, according to a new report from the AFL-CIO,” a wealth disparity Trump’s proposed tax cuts would buoy if implemented.

This finding leads us to why conservatives might have assumed that Trump was the right man for the job: He’s rich (and he’s not afraid to brag about it. Though just how rich is still unclear). And surely he must be rich because he’s a good CEO (“good” as defined by conservatives), and if he’s a good CEO, he must be worthy of not just the corner office but the Oval Office.

Herein lies the double-edged sword—or the potential for just deserts, depending on where you lie on the political spectrum. Unlike liberal-leaning boards, which hold a CEO responsible but also take into account issues of social welfare and circumstances outside the CEO’s control, conservative board members tend to evaluate the CEO on delivery above all else. And since Trump claims that “[he] alone can fix it,” citizens will be expecting the new CEO to deliver on his promises—to make America strong again, to make America proud again, to make America safe again, to make America great again, and to make all of our wildest dreams come true.

President Hillary and the Next Generation of Leaders

No matter whom you vote for today, I think we can all agree that the next four years will challenge America’s perceptions about our country’s elected “CEO.” Today, November 8, 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton is predicted to shatter the most fortified and multipaned of glass ceilings in the United States, joining the ranks of such leaders as former Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. Of course, this otherwise momentous occasion is in many ways just one step along what promises to be a very long and bumpy road. Clinton has already accomplished an extraordinary amount in her career, all while facing challenges that her male peers did not. As they say, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did “backwards and in high heels.” Likewise, women in leadership roles must run countries and companies while managing the extra work created by gender bias, such as navigating expectations around “niceness” or the seemingly never-ending scrutiny of their physical appearance and personal lives. Samantha Bee’s interview of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, Marshallese president Hilda Heine, and Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović reveals a glimpse of just what female world leaders have to deal with beyond leading their nations.

Though the United States is a country rather than a company, there is no reason to believe bias would operate differently as our CEO and commander in chief interacts with Congress, a body whose demographics don’t vary much from the Fortune 500 in terms of female representation. On top of that, research shows that women get blamed more for corporate failures than their male counterparts. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports that, according to new analysis out of the Rockefeller Foundation and Global Strategy Group, the media cites the CEO as the reason for a company’s crisis 80 percent of the time when that CEO is a woman versus 31 percent when the CEO is a man. Clinton is all too familiar with the blame game, noting in the first presidential debate, “I have a feeling that, by the end of this evening, I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened.”

What happens in the next four years will undoubtedly influence the course of politics and business culture—and inform the lives of women and girls—across the globe. So, what’s HRC to do when “the toll we’ve paid” to get her there “has been the most graphically sexist election in living memory” according to the New York Times, an election too many of us are quick to put behind us? Well, she could continue to name the issue. She could call out the sexism of her colleagues, as former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard did in her famous 2012 misogyny speech. She could call out sexism in the media, as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer did. Of course, any of those things would be on top of just being a damn good president.

That’s why Clinton shouldn’t have to do it alone. We, as her delegates, must stand up against sexism in whatever realm we occupy, whether it’s a war room or a boardroom (or a courtroom or a newsroom or a classroom or a kitchen). This is not just the job of women, or of women CEOs and elected leaders, but of all of us. We can all say enough is enough, as Michelle Obama encouraged us to do in her New Hampshire speech. We can engage in self-reflection to ensure we aren’t piling on, criticizing anything less than perfection for our women as role models or in the way they choose to grapple with certain sexism. And, most importantly, we can keep appointing and electing women to leadership positions until it is normalized, until we as constituents, board members, or frontline workers learn to judge our leaders fairly, based on competency and character, and take the “nasty” out it.

Tenure and the Ticking Clock

As of this moment, just weeks before the November election, Ronald Reagan holds the record as the oldest person to ever hold office. In a debate in 1984, he was asked a question about his age and whether he had enough stamina to keep on running the country. His famous answer: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Of course, age in and of itself doesn’t matter. Yet it is often used as shorthand in terms of that long-standing debate, argued between generations since time immemorial. Though it can take the form of suits and ties versus long hair and bell-bottoms or texting versus Facebook, the underlying clash remains the same: What is more valuable—the wisdom and accomplishment of the experienced, or the creativity and passion of the neophyte?

Now, please don’t misunderstand me—I’m not here to compare the role of president to the role of CEO. Instead, I’m interested in leadership, specifically what keeps a leader effective, no matter how long in the tooth or wet behind the ears he or she is. The question, which I go into at length on Deloitte’s website, is: When a person becomes a CEO, is it just a matter of time before he or she loses the ability to be effective and to keep the company competitive? Do all CEOs inevitably become obsolete?

In 2008, after John McCain admitted that he did not know how to use a computer—or, mind-boggling in light of the current challenges of the Clinton campaign, feel the need to email—Barack Obama’s campaign made a television ad in which they called the Republican nominee “out of touch.” Now, would his technology illiteracy have made him a bad president? Not necessarily. But what’s striking about these interviews is that McCain showed a strong incuriosity about technology in general. In an interview on CNN, he said, “I read my emails, but I don’t write any. I’m a Neanderthal—I don’t even type. I do have rudimentary capabilities to call up some websites, like the New York Times online, that sort of stuff. No laptop. No PalmPilot. I prefer my schedule on notecards, which I keep in my jacket pocket.”

Obviously, that admission was a mistake for many reasons. The fact that McCain’s wife read his emails aloud to him every night was cute, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver kind of way, but it didn’t do much for his image. Now, fast forward to 2016. According to an article published last week in the Wall Street Journal, CEOs are staying longer in the corner office, many beyond the age of sixty-four. And a recent study found that the benefits of a CEO’s on-the-job experience can be offset over time, especially if the CEO relies on go-to behaviors despite changes in the competitive environment. Plus, the negative effects of CEO tenure multiply over time, as CEOs gain power.1 In short, no matter how old or experienced a CEO is, it is up to him or her to stay in the know.

We live in a world where innovation is arguably more critical than ever before, and where advancements occur at a breakneck speed. To avoid complacency and the loss of competitive edge, a CEO must be purposeful about introspection and committed to ongoing growth. She must question her established approaches and guard against the common urge to resist the new and unfamiliar, and build a management team composed of people who value honesty, diversity, and creativity to help her do that. And, perhaps above all else, she must be curious about the people around her, the current business environment, and the future that is fast on its way.

1 Peter Limbach, Markus Schmid, and Meik Scholz of the University of St. Gallen School of Finance, “All Good Things Come to an End: CEO Life Cycle and Firm Performance,” March 31, 2016, updated from July 3, 2015.

Toward a New Capitalism

Modern capitalism is under fire—even the US political debate rings with it. Questions include what is simply “good business” vs crony capitalism, and what about the interests of the consumer? The business world is being forced to come up with new ways to respond. Whether it’s the public resistance to the autocratic regime in Venezuela or the vehement anti-capitalist rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders movement that took it up, capitalism as we know it is feeling a bit of an earthquake, and the corporate world is feeling some aftershocks. Naturally, there will always be a contingency that blames big business for perpetuating the worst woes of capitalism such as the income gap, global warming, or the economic collapse of 2008. For years, companies have fought long and hard to put to rest any negative associations with terms like “profit,” “corporate,” and “bottom line.” But this approach only enforces the binary. Now, some businesses are taking a more creative approach in which they fully own and embrace the power of capitalism to make money and a positive impact.

I’ve ventured into this territory before in writing about top business executives who are channeling their social and financial capital toward a greater good. Powerful figures like Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, and Marc Benioff, to name a few, are pioneers of this fascinating new trend: the CEO-turned-activist. We’ve seen this in Sheryl Sandberg’s mission to empower women, Howard Shultz’s Race Together Campaign, and Mark Benioff’s protest over the recent “religious freedom” act in North Carolina. The message is evident: this isn’t your father’s capitalism.

This type of activist social change is not the typical corporate responsibility policy we usually see, but instead a scalable business strategy with long-term benefits. Changing the world has become profitable. Fortune seemed to agree when they released “Change the World,” a list recognizing fifty companies with measurable positive social impact in their core business strategies. With corporate behemoths like GlaxoSmithKline, Nike, and Nestle—yes, Nestle—in the top ten, the criteria extend beyond “doing good” and focus on practices that strive towards social change and profit.

The “Change the World” list was formed with the help of Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter. In an article originally published in Harvard Business Review, Porter and his colleague Mark R. Kramer introduce the theory of “shared value,” a management strategy focused on creating measurable value by acknowledging and addressing social problems. “Shared value” lays the foundation for Fortune’s “Change the World” list and sheds light on the increasing popularity of CEO activists.

When the article was published in 2011, Porter and Kramer reported that public trust in corporations was extremely low. Tune in to any news cycle and you’ll find the statement still applies today—in spades. Porter and Kramer blame it on businesses’ focus on short-term profit, a move that may delight shareholders in the short run but could also “overlook the greatest unmet needs in the market as well as broader influences on their long-term success.” The charges Porter and Kramer leverage against corporate America rival those of any disgruntled everyday Joe. If companies weren’t blinded by short-term profit and this outdated notion of value creation, they ask, “why else would [they] ignore the well-being of their customers, the depletion of natural resources vital to their businesses, the viability of suppliers, and the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell?” Why indeed.

Fortune’s eye-opening “Change the World” list demonstrates that what makes the selected firms’ social impact so valuable is that they did not set out to be do-gooders. In fact, many corporations on the list—such as Mastercard, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America—are of the ilk that make those skeptical of corporations turn away in disgust. For those firms on Fortune’s list, social change is a secondary result of improved business models and realigned visions, which is exactly what Porter and Kramer called for years ago when “shared value” was in its genesis.

Today, smart business leaders and CEOs are recognizing that even after the customer is served, a modern company’s work isn’t done. Socially conscious firms that practice “shared value” have the potential not only to generate profit, and quite a lot of it, but also to reshape modern capitalism’s relationship with society. These changes aren’t taking place through full-scale business transformations. Rather, businesses are taking new approaches to their corporate visions and transforming the ways in which they approach their markets, customers, suppliers, and communities. While these changes often start small, the impact can be huge. If “shared value” becomes what it takes for businesses to get to the top, everybody wins.

The Audacity of Emotion

After the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did exactly what the social networking site encourages its 1.65 billion users to do: she shared her life experience online. In a lengthy Facebook post, she marks the end of sheloshim, a thirty-day Jewish tradition for the mourning of a spouse, writing, “When people say to me, 'You and your children will find happiness again,' my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. 'You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good' comforts me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Over the last year, Sandberg has publicly grappled with her feelings in several Facebook posts, with her colleagues, and even during her commencement speech at Berkeley. In April, Sandberg hosted an event for Facebook’s advertisers and their agencies. As she stood to welcome the attendees, Sandberg disclosed her struggle to find meaning during the dark days in front of a silent room of business executives. She expressed deep sorrow about her husband’s absence during a school event for her children earlier that day. Instead of putting on a good face to get through the dinner, she opened up, and spoke honestly about her pain.

This tragic experience prompted more than deep feeling; it also caused her to rethink aspects of her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A modern women-in-the-workplace manifesto, Sandberg’s book nonetheless received a fair share of criticism for failing to address the forces of class, race, and single parenting that prevent some women from “leaning in.”

Detailed in another heartfelt Facebook post on Mother’s Day, Sandberg acknowledges how the death of her husband opened her eyes to a whole new perspective. She admitted that her book didn’t properly address the challenge of single parents. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.” She continued by calling for improved policies on paid maternal leave and better support for single mothers.

Sandberg’s vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to share her loss with the public (and shareholders) challenges convention on what we expect from a Fortune 500 leader. While many responded favorably to her handling of the situation (the outpouring prompting Sandberg to begin penning a new book on resilience), this rare moment of emotional honesty also brought out the trolls. I was unsurprised by the detractors. After all, in the business world, success requires checking our feelings—if not our private lives entirely—at the door. We soon learn that mixing personal matters with work is unprofessional, or worse, a sign of weakness. Hold it together, hide your struggle, and absolutely do. not. cry. This mindset affects women the most, for whom showing emotion in the workplace is tantamount to career suicide.

Initially, Sandberg had her own reservations and even some of her Facebook colleagues were concerned by the possible outcomes of such a personal outpour. Would she be viewed as soft, distracted, unfit for the job? If she boldly soldiered on, there was professional risk there too. Is she that cold, heartless, an “ice queen”? Consider other recent examples. When Hillary Clinton choked up during a Benghazi hearing, she was accused of being weak and playing her “woman card” to turn down the heat. On a separate occasion, she was dubbed "Heartless Hillary" for expressing a plan to crack down on gun laws. It can seem like there is no way to win. But when one of the most powerful women in the corporate world reveals her humanity during a time of deep struggle, it makes an important social statement that challenges the future of business leadership.

Here’s the truth: women or men, we are human. A work environment that doesn’t take into account our humanity will be reflected in the health and morale of the company and affect its bottom line. If our business leaders are able to model their humanity gracefully, they create room for trust and connect with employees and customers alike.

My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

Over the past fifteen years, a new crop of highly skilled researchers has entered the field of entrepreneurial research. They have in large part cleared away the tangled undergrowth of methodological questions: substantive definitions have been established and, increasingly, real entrepreneurs are used in sample populations. Despite the progress made in establishing a common language and base from which to compare and contrast information, most scholars in the field persist in focusing their research on what differentiates entrepreneurs from the rest of us very narrowly.

As Clemson University professor of entrepreneurship William Gartner noted: “Something gets lost when the focus of research on entrepreneurship sticks too closely to the ‘esoteric knowledge’ [of a] narrow disciplinary perspective. A finding can be right and interesting to a scholar within a specific theoretical perspective, but wrong or obvious to the practitioner and scholar with a broader and messier knowledge of the phenomenon.”

Gartner’s words struck a chord with me. And as I continued my own synthesis of existing research (with all of its elegance, and warts), I became even more deliberate about broadening the scope of my work.

What I needed was the scholarship and insight to make sense of my personal experiences as a consultant and what I knew to be anecdotally true about what makes entrepreneurs different from the rest of us. I began amassing an ever-higher pile of articles from academic journals, working papers, autobiographies, newspaper features, and magazine investigations to add to my transcripts of personal interviews with entrepreneurs, their kids, their wives, and, in many cases, their ex-wives. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting somewhere.

In early 2008 I was offered a coveted scholar-in-residence position at The Austen Riggs Center, which is ranked among the top psychiatric centers in North America. Riggs is a not-for-profit “open” hospital for patients who have not found success with the shorter-term biological and behavioral treatments characteristic of today’s approaches. Most of Riggs’ patients have been hospitalized multiple times in more traditional settings before finding their way to the center. Caught in a cycle of repeated crisis interventions that have failed to address the heart of their problems, they have been labeled “treatment resistant.” Importantly for my research, Riggs is the only psychiatric hospital in the United States that has a specialized focus on intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I didn’t have the background to examine my subjects from the perspective of a therapist, but at Austen Riggs, I would be surrounded by those who did.

The offer from Riggs was a singular opportunity to learn about psychopathology while also having the time and space to dig into two decades of legitimate research about entrepreneurial characteristics. I wanted to determine if there was an untold link lurking in the data. At Riggs, I’d be given full access to the staff, clinical privileges to read case workups, and an open invitation to attend all patient case conferences—a rare invitation for someone without clinical credentials. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand some of the most complex psychiatric disorders and to learn how their etiology is traced.

I took the position. And based within Riggs’ Erik Erikson Institute, I found myself surrounded by brilliant, caring, and inquisitive psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers who were willing to act as sounding boards and brainstorm ideas for additional avenues of inquiry.

My first week there, I asked the Institute’s director, Dr. Gerard Fromm, why he chose me over others to be the Erikson scholar-in-residence. I’ll never forget his response: “We’re fascinated by the questions you’re trying to answer, to gain insight to what drives the behaviors of those particular entrepreneurs that interest you. We have a good measure of self-interest in what you’re probing, Mark, because we believe some patients who come to us for help may be the children of the same kind of men you’re focusing on. The more you can answer your questions, and understand what’s behind their behavior, the better we may be able to understand the parental influence that perhaps helped to shape these patients and what they are now struggling with.”

That was the moment when I realized that the themes I had been identifying in my consulting work over the past twenty years—the dark side of entrepreneurship—could have more profound implications. I’d heard plenty of stories over the years about “crazy” CEOs, and I walked out of Jerry Fromm’s office thinking this project could give insight into the consequential impact these men were making not only on their investors and their employees, but also on their wives, families, and communities. This was the moment when my research truly began to take shape. I was well-versed in the damage mean men could do to their organizations, but my time at Austen Riggs begged the question: Did mean men just ruin companies, or did they also ruin lives?

This post was originally published on my blog on Sep 21, 2015.

How to Cope With a Mean Boss

With my upcoming book, Mean Men, I hope to be part of a shift away from our current climate of mean in leadership culture. Meanness as a strategy for success is finally starting to come into question in the mainstream media. Even Forbes weighed in last week, noting that the extraordinary careers of people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs happen in spite of their bullying personalities, not because their behavior and the culture of intimidation they create is a tactical advantage. But as much as things might be changing in our cultural discourse, mean men still run amok in the real world. And while there’s hope that more and more employees will be able to leave when the men in charge get mean, that’s not always a possibility. So what can folks who find themselves stuck between a mean man and a hard place do to preserve their sanity? Are there ways to, at the very least, blunt the impact of these characters?

Psychologists have been developing specific strategies that help others buffer and deflect the full-on abuse that mean men display when left unchecked. These strategies will not transform aggressively controlling behavior, but they will put boundaries around it.

A near-universal trait of mean men is that they are deeply manipulative. They distort reality, making those around them question themselves and their perceptions: it’s a mean man’s world, and we’re all just living in it. But while we can depend on them to deflect blame, criticize others’ work, and grab the credit that others deserve, we can also be proactive in minimizing the effects of their emotional attacks.

Andrea Kimble,* a senior manager under the infamous Dov Charney who I interviewed for my upcoming book, survived by physically avoiding her unpredictable boss and minimizing one-on-one communication whenever she could. She strategically planned her workspace and her workday so as to always have allies around her when she thought Dov might appear. She even had colleagues give her a heads-up if they knew Dov was on his way to see her so that he couldn’t have the upper hand of catching her off guard.

If you’re not able to physically separate yourself from your boss, detaching emotionally can be a good technique for getting some internal distance. Viewing your situation from a fresh perspective so you can see your circumstances objectively puts you in a better position to consider options than getting overwhelmed by how you feel. The emotional part of your brain requires balance with its rational part so it can cool down, calm down, and strategize.

To practice, take a moment to assess your feelings when you’re agitated but are not in a situation where an immediate response is required—for example, when you’ve received an upsetting e-mail from your boss but are not in the room with him. Take an inventory of the situation by going through the following questions:

  1. What’s happening right now? Write down what you see, hear, and feel.
  2. What are the facts? Assess your personal (and organizational) needs in the moment, and quickly summarize how you are being treated as a result of trying to get those needs met. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you need to get it done?
  3. What is he doing? Identify how he is acting and what you think may be sparking his toxic behavior. Don’t try to psychoanalyze him; the best you can do is find the “triggers” that set this behavior off.
  4. What am I doing? Determine as best you can your role in the situation. List how you are reacting (behaviorally and emotionally) and how you have reacted to this same or similar behavior in the past. This is usually the toughest question of the five to answer.
  5. What are my options? Write down some concrete actions you might take to help the immediate problem. As easy as it may be to find rational answers, it can be just as difficult to act on them.

When a situation causes us emotional pain, our natural reaction is to blame the obvious offender and not do a gut check to see what we may be doing to contribute to our own pain. Looking more rationally at our own role in—and vulnerabilities to—the situation can give us points of leverage for reducing the impact of mean behavior. These kinds of coping mechanisms are not a long-term fix, but they can certainly help you hold on to your sanity and values until you can seek greener pastures. I’ll be exploring additional strategies for dealing with mean in the blog posts to come, so stay tuned if you need some support.

*name has been changed

This post originally ran on my blog on July 20, 2015.

The Founder’s Dilemma

From PR nightmare Dov Charney to disgraced biker Lance Armstrong to politically controversial Nancy Brinker (founder of the Susan G. Komen foundation), there is ample evidence that sometimes the most dangerous thing to an organization is the person who created it. So what happens when it’s time for a founder to step away? In my work as a consultant and as the head of the New School’s Tenenbaum Leadership Initiative, I’ve deeply explored the so-called founder’s dilemma both in my research and in my personal experiences. This is the toxic dynamic that emerges when founders don’t move on from the organization they created when there is every indication that they should. Absent a clean break, they invariably create an ambiguous path of succession and decision-making that will hobble even the most talented leaders who follow in their wake. I have seen how pernicious this can become. Predictable organizational problems emerge: internal warfare among colleagues, conflicting decision protocols, hamstrung board members (who often are responsible for allowing this dynamic to occur in the first place). In addition, we see cultural degradation, wariness among funders/investors, and false starts on strategic imperatives. It can harm the long-term viability of the organization and damage its reputation and legacy beyond repair.

Part of the difficulty stems from the ways in which organizations and their founders can develop a fused identity, both from their own perspective and that of the public, creating a vicious cycle. The problem emerges when the needs of the organization and the needs of the founder diverge, such as was the case with Nancy Brinker’s wildly unpopular decision to pull support from Planned Parenthood, a move from which the nonprofit’s reputation has never recovered. Founders must wrestle with how to reshape their identity if they depart, but the anxiety or fear that often keeps founders in place, preventing this identity-reshaping process, is rooted in the assumption that no one will be able to see them as separate from the organization they created, and vice versa.

While my research has focused on founders in nonprofit settings, Noam Wasserman of Harvard Business School looks at their for-profit counterparts. Wasserman believes there are two main motivations that drive founders: wealth and control, and you get one choice since it’s exceedingly rare to achieve and maintain both. It helps to know which camp you’re in, since your motives will help you clarify decisions about new hires, boards, and when you will need to exit the start-up. For example, Bill Gates landed in that rarified space where both were simultaneously possible, but Steve Jobs did not (remember: he was fired by his board the first time around).

The nonprofit sector doesn’t provide the option for wealth, so control is all there is to grab on to, and many founders keep a white-knuckle hold on it for as long as they can. Even those founders who are able to accept that it’s time for them to step down may become anxious as the reality of leaving sets in. Their self-worth can become so enmeshed with their role in the organization that they can’t imagine who they’d be without it. They may agree to leave, only to panic and do anything necessary to get their power back—as Dov Charney has done with American Apparel. Most founders have devoted their lives to building up their companies, and the challenge of how to let go of power over what they’ve created is deeply uncomfortable.

Founders preparing to leave their companies face big questions: “What am I going to do with my life now?” “Who am I now that I no longer have the job I’ve defined myself by?”

Another internal dilemma founders often struggle mightily with—often in isolation—is based on their close psychological attachment to the organization. In their minds, they are the organization, and the reverse, in their minds, is also true. They wonder, “Can my organization survive without me? Will it potentially collapse or encounter a rough patch after I leave?” Or, counterintuitively, they may fear the opposite outcome: “Will I be humiliated if the organization flourishes without me?”

In the most severe cases, when founders cannot resolve the intrapsychic dilemma of whether the company is sustainable without them, I’ve seen them find ways to sabotage the success of their replacements, even if it means putting the organization at risk.

It’s not only the founders who face a dilemma when they choose to move on. Boards of the organizations they govern often have their own. They may fall into a loyalty trap, resisting the idea of acting independently, regardless of their responsibilities. Legacy board members close to the founder often struggle with removing them from strategic and operational influence, even when they know it’s right for the company. The dilemma becomes doing right for the organization versus “right” for their friend and colleague, the founder.

Founders essentially “conceive” of a way to change some part of the world—in Brinker and Armstrong’s case, curing cancer, in Charney’s case, creating fairly operated garment factories. They “give birth” to the organization that will bring this closer to reality, then shepherd it through “adolescent growth.” Often, however, they cannot make a clean break even as their “child” matures and truly no longer needs them. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see why so many founders struggle with attachment issues. But just as a parent must let a child grow up, so must founders often step away from the organizations they created in order for them to thrive, no matter how painful their empty nest syndrome is.


This post originally ran on my blog on Dec 14, 2015.

Where Are the Mean Women?

The focus on much of my blog—and of my forthcoming book—is corrupt CEOs and badly behaving leaders across a spectrum of industries. All of those featured happen to be men. The paucity of female counterparts—mean women—has sparked a series of spirited debates on my LinkedIn posts with some readers taking this as a biased, unfair critique of men, while others argue that behavior like this from a woman would never fly. In this election season of intensely charged political mudslinging, and the final battle shaping up to pit a man and a woman against each other, the question seems more pertinent than ever: Whither the mean woman? As I’ve discussed at length, mean men are often perceived as powerful, persuasive, competent, and in control. Their very meanness may in fact help them convince others that they deserve to be top dog. But does it work as well for women?

In 2006, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, asserted that then Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president. In a time when shouting down one’s opponents has become normative political behavior, why was Clinton singled out for being mean? Politicians have always used tactics like this to defame their opponents, but when the comments were picked up by the media, this case began to raise questions about a double standard. The problem wasn’t so much about anger or meanness per se, but that Clinton was being accused of behavior that wasn’t considered befitting a woman. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times categorized the issue in this way:

They are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies. . . . The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn’t speak out strongly against President Bush, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.

Clinton’s experience perfectly expresses the bind many female leaders find themselves in. Women are expected to be kinder and more modest than men and suffer if they fail to conform to this prescriptive stereotype. Groundbreaking studies by Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann, professors at Yale and Northwestern, respectively, confirm what many of us suspect: that while men may be perceived as better leaders because of mean behavior, the opposite is true for women.

Women are conditioned away from being mean, but men essentially get a free pass on displaying anger due to our own cultural biases. We see male anger as a natural response to objective, external circumstances. When women show anger in the workplace, it seems out of context, and thus we naturally presume it’s a product of her personality. Her anger is viewed as internally caused (“she’s an angry person”; “she’s out of control”) rather than externally instigated (“the situation was frustrating or unacceptable”).

The Brescoll/Uhlmann study examined the very real consequences of these biases. The expression of anger by men actually increased their potential to be seen as having higher status by others. Angry men were more likely to be seen as leaders. However, professional women who expressed anger were consistently assigned to a lower rung on the ladder and also earned lower wages. Angry women were seen as less competent than angry men and unemotional women.

Another study, by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford, found that men who expressed anger in professional settings were more likely to be hired than men who expressed sadness and were also given more status, power, and independence in their jobs. Unlike with men, a woman’s occupational rank (whether CEO or trainee) in no way influenced the judgements made about their behavior. Angry women were consistently seen as out of control.

These studies jibe with my personal experience researching and writing about the subject of mean behavior in the workplace. Examples of mean men abound, but try as I might, I had incredible difficulty finding examples of powerful women who exhibit the same set of traits. What I found was that women leaders were held to a distinct double standard. Men can get away with mean, but if women are to maintain their status in any social system (politics, organizational life, entrepreneurship, to name only three), then they may have to suppress some of their emotions in order to be seen as rational, lest they be perceived as less socially skilled, and therefore less hirable for jobs that require social-interaction skills than are men who behave identically.

And it’s not only about meanness: women who demonstrate assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness experience backlash and have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice versus competent and cold. If a woman shows anger, she is the ice queen, the ballbuster, the dragon lady, the bitch.

Experimental studies consistently find that, unlike men, when women try to negotiate greater compensation, they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation, they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they criticize, they are disliked. See a pattern here? The same behaviors that enhance a man’s status are the ones that make a woman less popular. In leadership roles, women may find themselves in a never-ending double bind of figuring out how to direct, command, and control their followers without appearing to do so.

So are women just better human beings, more prone to generosity and agreeableness than they are to getting ahead, making the deal, crushing the competition? The research suggests to me that while inherent goodness isn’t gendered, how we react to and reward the expression of mean traits reflects a deep gender bias in society. Would we have more mean women if we gave the same allowances for powerful women to express their anger? Maybe or maybe not. What we do know is that women are strongly conditioned away from mean, while men realize early on that mean can work to their advantage. As a society, we need to take a hard look at the behavior we reward and that which we punish, and the monsters we’re creating as we do so.

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be critical tool in exposing the dark sides of men in power. But great power comes with great responsibility—and in the case of mean men, all too often the media either misuses its power or does too little with it. As we’ve seen with the clickbait circus that has been the Trump campaign, the media can create a monster as easily as it combats them. Conversely, stories that strive to be catalysts for positive change often vanish in the ether after the initial attention-grab. The pace of the modern media landscape is such that, when all is said and done, it’s rare that the impact will linger long enough to reveal the extent of a mean man’s abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson, for example, did serious damage to Steve Jobs’s reputation by revealing what a terrible person he was, but Isaacson’s book came out after Jobs had passed. And while plenty of other writers and former colleagues had chronicled and spoken out over the years about Jobs’s personal flaws, the mainstream business press seldom drew on those reports in a way that would have given the public a more balanced portrayal of Jobs as a leader. In 2009, for example, Fortune named him CEO of the decade. Beyond briefly noting that he was a “tyrannical perfectionist,” the fawning article had nothing specific to say about his treatment of people. The stock-option backdating scandal was mentioned only in passing, quoting Jobs as saying that it was “completely out of character for Apple.” Overall, the CEO of the decade emerged from the article as a towering hero.

Of course, some business leaders do receive negative press for their bad behavior. Gossip-driven online publications such as Gawker, the Drudge Report, and, to an extent, Business Insider act like an extra set of eyes on the streets, at high-society gatherings, and in boardrooms—and no one is exempt from their critical gaze. But still, even the most serious of offenses are relegated to click-bait status. In addition, reports of abusive or offensive behavior are often accompanied shortly thereafter by lavish praise and the rationalization that being a monster simply comes with the territory of being a genius.

Case in point: Harvey Weinstein. His assault on a reporter and his threats to the chair of the DNC were such high-profile outbursts that they were impossible to ignore, but articles recounting these instances tended to be positive overall. In one New York magazine profile, David Carr wrote: “All the legendary bad behavior cannot obscure an objective fact: Harvey Weinstein is a cultural good.” For all the “titans” he threw around in reference to Weinstein, Carr might as well have written cultural god.

Larry Ellison is another leader whose bad behavior has been widely noted by the business press only to be swiftly excused. As one reporter wrote about Ellison: “By all accounts, he is a bad listener and a big talker, whose brash, take-no-prisoners approach tends to alienate employees and customers alike. Yet, in the past 35 years, the jet-flying, sailboat-racing renegade has built Oracle into one of the most important tech firms on the planet, with annual revenues of $27 billion.”

In other words, so what if a guy would make the worst friend and golfing partner on earth and you would never let your daughter date him—he’s got great toys!

So why does the media tend to overlook or excuse lousy or abusive behavior?

Like so many of the board directors and investors who surround mean men, business reporters tend to focus on a leader’s short-term results rather than their character. Tech reporters in particular tend to be interested in innovation and what’s new, regardless of how nasty the creator behind it is. Rarely is thought given to whether a leader’s style will drive sustainable results.

Personality traits of business leaders only get attention to the degree that they feed into a bigger narrative—one that includes jets, sailboats, and multiple zeroes after the dollar sign. Many business reporters overlook the fact that leadership style and organizational culture can be central indicators of a company’s health and chances of success. For instance, the toxic culture that Mark Pincus created at Zynga started to get attention only when the company began to struggle, even though his behavior had been well known amongst his cohort for years. His board even saw fit to reinstate him recently.

Business reporters—like many of us raised to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world—may buy into the assumption that good leaders need to be brutes in order to get results. Sure, when the going gets tough, the tough need to get going, but just because business is competitive and the stakes are high, does this mean sharp elbows are always necessary? Is doing whatever it takes to survive—including driving straight over others to get to the top—always an asset?

So much of what we read or see on television leads us to believe that the answer to the questions above is yes.

Granted, some reporters do attempt to present balanced portrayals of mean geniuses, and it isn’t always easy to get sources to open up about abusive behavior. But if you watched the first season of House of Cards, you know it takes nerves and perseverance to get the full scoop. Digging up damaging information about a leader’s personal style and behavior can quickly place a journalist’s press pass at risk.

The fact that an entrepreneur is a bullying egomaniac may seem like a side note to some, or fodder for an over-the-top tale meant for the big screen à la The Wolf of Wall Street. But if those who have access to the inner chambers of the mean men who are in charge of our nation’s wealth and culture are not acting as watchdogs, how is the American public being protected from those who would shred it to pieces?


This post originally ran on my blog on May, 11 2015.

Corporate Activism Heats Up in North Carolina

The onetime corporate leadership mind-set to “be seen and not heard” when it came to politics has undergone a rapid shift—hitting a fever pitch in this controversial election season. In March, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that would roll back the rights of LGBT people by allowing business owners to refuse service to LGBT individuals, force people to use restrooms that correspond with the biological sex on their birth certificates regardless of how they identify, and limit a spate of job protections for members of the LGBT community. Proponents of the law say that the intent is to safeguard religious freedoms and to protect women’s privacy in the restroom. But the growing list of vocal opponents claim that it’s nothing more than blatant discrimination and that it constitutes a civil rights violation. Since the bill passed, there has been a deluge of national criticism from community leaders, celebrities, and artists—musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Itzhak Perlman have canceled performances in the state. These are all folks you expect to hear from about social issues. But the cascade of corporate leaders who’ve spoken out has been extraordinary, with CEOs from Apple, Wells Fargo, IBM, Salesforce, PayPal, and the NBA denouncing the law. Over 120 national companies have now signed a letter condemning the law. The mayors of New York, San Francisco, and Seattle have banned government travel to the state of North Carolina. But for the already economically unstable state, this dissent is much more than a slap on the wrist, as CEOs of major companies are not just speaking out but making sure North Carolina faces major economic consequences. Most recently Pepsi—which was invented in North Carolina and still employs thousands in the state—came out against the law, and Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris has announced a boycott of funding to any start-ups in the state until the law is repealed. You can see a full list of companies that have come out for and against the bill here, and the differences between the lists—both in number and scope—are shocking.

And it’s not just talk and tweets. As a result of the bill, PayPal canceled expansion plans that would have brought 400 jobs to the state; Deutsche Bank froze creation of 250 jobs; A+E Networks, Lionsgate, and 21st Century Fox have all vowed not to film there until the law is repealed (joining Fox, Miramax, and the Weinstein Company in the pledge). Now, the Department of Justice is threatening to pull federal funds if the state doesn’t repeal the law.

It’s no surprise then that business leaders in North Carolina are worried about what effects the law might have on their bottom line. Bob Page, CEO of NC-based Replacements, Ltd., sent out a letter to customers ensuring that there would be no discrimination: “I want to make one thing clear,” he said in his eloquent statement. “Replacements, Ltd. affirms the dignity and beauty of each and every person. You will always be warmly welcomed.”

State leadership is anything but aligned on the subject, with Attorney General Roy Cooper calling the bill “a national embarrassment” and claiming it would set the state economy back.

With a who’s who of the corporate world putting pressure on the state, it remains to be seen whether state leadership will choose this hill as the one to die on (economically speaking): but one thing is certain, the power of CEO activism is real, and it’s likely here to stay.

How CEO Activism Goes Beyond Business

CEOs of large companies loom larger in the public sphere than ever before. As names like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marc Benioff become increasingly familiar to the average consumer, they’re able to put faces to the companies they buy from. In 2016, corporations are conflated with the people who run them, and for better or worse—and their actions don’t go unnoticed. As discussed last week, some prominent business leaders are channeling their influence to champion causes they feel strongly about. Once upon a time, if you’d asked a CEO to speak publicly about a contentious political issue, your chances of getting anything more than a “no comment” were minimal. But as influential CEOs move into ever more public roles due to the evolving media landscape and changing expectations from their workforce, many now feel compelled to take a stand about the issues they—and their customers—care about. However, if a trend is going to sweep the business world, it needs to benefit not only the greater good but also a company’s bottom line. So how does CEO activism fare in this respect?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has become well known as an activist CEO, joining others such as Google’s Eric Schmidt, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, and Apple’s Timothy Cook in recently taking public stances on controversial issues like gender equality, race, and same-sex marriage laws. In March of 2015, Schultz launched his Race Together campaign, an initiative intended to spark conversations about race in our country at a time when stories about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police were dominating news cycles. As part of the campaign, Schultz asked baristas to write Race Together on Starbucks cups, urging them to have conversations with customers about race relations in America. It was a bold move, and unfortunately for Schultz, this likely well-intended effort was not taken well by the public. Critics saw the effort as both tone-deaf and a naked marketing ploy. Many pointed out the also uncomfortable fact that Starbucks’ leadership is predominantly white and that asking the far more diverse and lower-paid baristas to get into such a loaded topic with customers felt wrongheaded at best.

The Race Together debacle might have turned into a cautionary tale about CEO activism, and indeed the campaign itself was swiftly put to rest. But rather than damaging Schultz’s reputation, it illuminated his identity as a progressive CEO. The overwhelming public attention garnered by the initiative shed light on Starbucks’ past and future efforts to benefit the greater good. In tandem with Race Together, Starbucks committed to hiring ten thousand disadvantaged youths over the next three years as well as opening stores in communities with large minority populations. This February, Schultz released a video announcing his mission to urge more Americans to vote and has spoken out about gun control, marriage equality, and affordable education.

Schultz’s willingness to talk about controversial topics is headline-grabbing material, but is this type of activism politically expedient or just talk? With the rise of CEO-turned-activists in today’s corporate culture, Aaron Chatterji, an associate professor of strategy at Duke, set out to understand the effect of this newer and less understood activism both on public opinion and the bottom line of those companies that engage in it.

Since it is difficult to measure whether CEO activism truly makes a difference, Chatterji decided to conduct an experiment. He and his team used a market research firm to ask almost 3,400 individuals whether they supported Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The question was accompanied by a statement cautioning that the law would allow discrimination. For some, the statement was unattributed. Other respondents were told the statement came from Apple CEO Tim Cook; others, that it came from a CEO of a smaller Indiana-based company; and a fourth group, that it came from the mayor of Indianapolis. The results showed that the impact of the statement when coming from CEO Tim Cook was on par with that of the mayor.

The team asked another 2,176 respondents the likelihood that they would buy Apple products. Some were told about Cook’s stance against the discrimination law, some were informed about his business practices, and some were given no information about Cook or the company. When people already opposed to the religious freedom law were told about his views on discrimination, their intentions to buy Apple products increased.

These findings point to an interesting pattern. According to Chatterji, “it might be hard to change people’s minds any more than the next person, but when CEOs make social statements, their potential consumers are paying attention.” This isn’t surprising. While a CEO’s outspoken rhetoric is partially intended to bolster his or her company’s reputation and bottom line, its power extends much further. The CEO is something of a vaunted figure in America, and their opinions make a difference.

Whether or not we agree with the sentiments of CEO activists, the trend reveals a positive shift in corporate influence in the political sphere. Historically, the involvement of corporations in politics has happened via shady practices and lobbying for an advantageous law or regulation. But CEO activism is different. It’s transparent. Yes, profits are in mind, but when a rabble-rousing CEO speaks about a controversial issue, it is, above all, a highly visible tactic that allows employees, customers, and media to form their own opinions. If CEOs can sway public opinion about issues like race and climate change, they might as well use their platform to benefit the greater good.

Are Activist CEOs Bullies or Beacons?

Many of the CEOs and leaders I’ve featured on my blog have ended up here for ignominious reasons: from sexual harassment claims too numerous to mention (Dov Charney) to expletive-laced screaming fits (Peter Arnell) to abusing their power at the head of a literally sacred institution (Mark Driscoll). But lately, a new trend in CEO behavior is giving me hope and proving that belligerence is not the natural reaction to having power. Behold the emergence of the activist CEO: those corporate leaders willing to take a stand on controversial issues in hopes of using their influence for good. Not everyone is on board with CEOs putting their money where their mouths—and hearts—are. Depending on whom you ask, Marc Benioff, CEO of the software company Salesforce—currently valued at around $3 billion—is either a man of principle who uses his influence on behalf of social justice, or a leftist bully who imposes his values on state lawmakers.

He made headlines recently, along with other business heavy hitters such as Microsoft, PayPal, and Deutsche Bank, when he was outspoken in his disgust about North Carolina’s controversial bathroom law—joining the coalition to pressure the state’s governor to repeal the law or risk losing business. This is not his first foray into social activism; he also came out swinging against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Georgia’s proposed bill to allow discrimination against same-sex couples.

Once upon a time, a large corporation wouldn’t have touched an issue like this with a ten-foot pole. But now, many feel that being outspoken about social issues is a savvy move and something that’s expected of CEOs, particularly those looking to attract top millennial talent. Young workers are often looking for more than just a job when they interview with a company. Those who have their pick of employers factor in everything from parental leave policies to on-campus amenities to the company’s corporate values when choosing where they want to spend their working hours. Benioff is quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece as saying, “The next generation of CEOs must advocate for all stakeholders—employees, customers, community, the environment, everybody, not just for shareholders.”

These CEOs’ motivation isn’t purely altruistic of course. A recent study by the New York Times showed that taking an activist role also has a positive impact on a company’s brand sentiment—with those respondents who were told about a company’s discrimination concerns reporting that they were likelier to buy the company’s products.

CEOs affecting public policy is, in and of itself, nothing new. But this activism trend is far different from the long tradition of influencing lawmakers through back channels such as lobbyists and campaign donations. The implications of Citizens United have reached far and wide, with endless campaign ads of questionable veracity running each election cycle (if, in fact, we can ever be said to be not in an election cycle in the modern era). These ads are often sponsored by groups with benign-sounding names (Americans for America, We Love USA PAC) and opaque origins. Lots of money trades hands, but it’s next to impossible to figure out who is giving how much to what cause.

CEO activism is the opposite. In the case of Benioff, he’s taking to his Twitter account to denounce discriminatory laws, making his stance clearly known. This has been true on the other side of the political spectrum as well: many found the anti-marriage-equality sentiments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy repugnant, but it’s helpful in a way, that he’d let them be known. That way, those who disagree with him can have all the facts before, say, accepting a corporate sponsorship from the company, or perhaps just stopping in for a chicken sandwich.

This represents something new and dramatic in the role of a CEO, whether it’s a public or privately owned firm, and I’ll dig deeper into the academic research on further consequences of activist CEOs in my next post. What we’ve examined so far is just the tip of a very refreshing iceberg.

The Fall of Theranos: The Gap Between Innovating and Optimizing

The troubles at blood-testing company Theranos continue to mount as CEO Elizabeth Holmes waits to hear if the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will propose sanctions that could ban her from the diagnostics business and stop her start-up from receiving payments from Medicare. With its vision of providing comprehensive health screenings with only a few drops of blood, this former biotech darling was once valued at close to $9 billion. The promise of Theranos, of being able to streamline preventive medical care in ways previously unimaginable, seemed world changing. But after failed inspections and the threat of government sanctions, it’s looking like the dream of Theranos was just that, a dream. The evidence is mounting that the closely guarded process by which Theranos claims to be able to run a myriad of tests from a few drops of blood amounts to a fairly scattershot approach to preventive care.  

In my earlier posts chronicling the downward spiral of HR software start-up Zenefits into the ash heap of former Silicon Valley sweethearts, I discussed how the lack of an exhaustive vision can be a death knell for young start-ups, particularly when their growth goes into hyperdrive. So what’s going on here? Has Silicon Valley just become Vegas for every young wannabe entrepreneur with a half-good idea?

As a recent New York Times op-ed piece explored, the downfall of Theranos can’t only be chalked up to the foolhardiness of youth. When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003, she was a nineteen-year-old Stanford engineering dropout with dreams of revolutionizing health care, but since then, she has curated a board of directors whose faces could make up a veritable Mount Rushmore of business, international politics, and strategy legends. Among them are such heavyweights as Bill Frist, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. With this combination of experience (although little of it based in medicine), it got me wondering: If the young CEO had the gravitas to put together this board of directors, men who negotiated detailed international treaties and complex legislation decades before she was born, then why did they not push for more attention to detail regarding the scientific accuracy and reliability of their tests? Theranos should have obsessed over these details, when in reality it seems they were sorely neglected.

For decades, big companies thrived and survived by building formidable “castles” to protect their positions. Competitors were thwarted by incumbents exploiting competitive advantages, erecting steep barriers to entry, and building powerful organizations with scope, scale, quality, and efficiencies that could resist disruption. But these castles were not built for today’s rapid and seismic market evolution, and as a result, many have seen their walls breached.

It was in the world of massive, seemingly impenetrable, bureaucratic medical laboratories that Ms. Holmes saw the weakness she could exploit. Small start-up businesses like Theranos thrive and survive by creating discontinuous innovations—sidestepping barriers to entry by creating new markets, wresting customers away from established organizations by offering them compelling new value propositions (like pain-free blood testing). But companies like Theranos have their own Achilles’ heel. They are organized for innovation, but not for efficiency and attention to detail.

While these companies have the ability to pivot more quickly than their larger, more established peers, they struggle with—or sometimes completely avoid—developing the ability to optimize operations by becoming as efficient as possible as quickly as possible once a disruptive innovation has proven successful. The problem here is with Theranos’ “success.” In offering a radically new approach to medical testing that positively transforms the patient experience, Theranos succeeded. But that success matters little if the test results for life-threatening illnesses are unreliable.

A decade plus of academic research is illuminating the fact that what organizations must develop to be successful in the long run is the capacity to become ambidextrous: those who cultivate this quality can optimize organizational efficiencies and quality services for their customers and devote resources to riskier endeavors that become the source of new innovations (experiment). Furthermore, companies that can successfully pull this off once can replicate the process for future cycles of innovation/optimization.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Holmes is not instilling confidence that she can lead the organization through the tensions in these inherently oppositional activities. If she were hyping a compelling new app or game and it just wasn’t ready for prime time, we probably wouldn’t blink an eye. But the consequences of this business reach much further. She has shown that she can innovate (the experimentation side of the equation) but her ability to optimize seems weak, a catastrophic failing if you hold people’s health in your hands.

One hopes Holmes will learn from this humiliating debacle. After all, the wisdom to innovate and optimize—rather than only innovate—is most often forged by years, even decades, of failing and regrouping. Most start-ups now need to do both. It wasn’t until Steve Jobs was ousted and then returned to his company that the vision of Apple truly blossomed. From what past mistakes in the field of biotechnology and life could Holmes draw upon to improve the process? She and her board members should have been paying obsessive attention to not only disrupting a bloated, byzantine health care industry but also following through on the heady promises the company made to those who trusted them: namely that they would take a commitment to their well-being seriously. Optimizing your company’s processes might not land you many headlines, but failing to do so certainly will—just for all the wrong reasons.

The Wisdom Behind GameStop’s Bold Move

“If we have good chemistry, and we have a shared vision, then there’s a good chance we can partner for long-term success.” —Mark Stanley, GameStop VP of Internal Development & Diversification

It’s been a busy few weeks over at GameStop. The video game retailer—owned by Barnes and Noble from 1999 to 2004—has seen a host of financial struggles due to the precipitous drop in the video game retail market in 2015. With the news just last week that the company was being dropped for the S & P 500. shows just how predictive the S&P “topple rate” —the rate at which firms lose leadership standing in the index—can illustrate veracity of market disruptions. And reinvigorating its leadership position is exactly what Mark Stanley hopes GameStop’s new venture, GameTrust, will accomplish.

With the launch of this new digital platform, GameStop is making a foray into intellectual property development and cross-channel distribution, both growing sectors in the gaming ecosystem. GameTrust is designed for smaller video game developers who don’t have the resources or bandwidth to distribute their games to a broader audience without support. Rather than continuing to bet on the sagging retail market, with GameTrust, GameStop hopes to throw its hat in the ring alongside companies such as Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.

For companies in an industry undergoing as much disruption as gaming has, evolving is vital, but transitions and growth can take a big toll on an organization if poorly executed (see the ongoing debacle with Zenefits). Can GameStop dramatically expand its core business offerings while remaining true to its overall vision? Leading this new venture is Stanley, who in a recent interview with Gamespot explained the importance of giving the new developers creative autonomy: “By allowing developers to fully focus on their craft,” he said, “GameTrust can focus on all other aspects of bringing a new IP to market, leveraging our deep expertise and retail channel leadership to support each developer and connect their games with a broader global audience.”

Having a clear and shared vision that gives team members the freedom to create and function within the structure of an organization will be critical during this upcoming period of change and growth for GameStop. I believe Stanley’s public commitment to respect the creative process bodes well for the company’s future. In a move consistent with that of a vision-driven leader, the executive explained that GameStop would not have any form of creative control over the developers they bring on or the games they create. This is a big plus for independent developers, who have traditionally had to use third-party distribution and relinquish a great amount of creative control, not to mention deal with the tension that often develops across teams when an organization is not operating according to a cohesive vision.

In the practical sense, it’s more crucial than ever for top management in quickly changing industries (which includes most industries at this point) to recognize the necessary shifts from a model of top-down control to one in which employees can innovate, be flexible, and adapt quickly over the longer term. This works when leaders embrace the notion of a structure that focuses on teamwork and cooperation. Grouping people based on the core processes they engage in—as GameStop is doing with this new venture—allows employees from diverse disciplines to know and understand one another and ultimately, hopefully, create something greater than the sum of their parts. This approach encourages tighter social relationships, joint decision-making styles, and collaborative work. Together, these serve to melt away the boundaries that result from employees working in silos, which stifle communication and creativity.

GameStop is a good example of the shrinking time frame for visions in some industries. The rule of thumb I use for clients—which is based on research I conducted back in 2000—is that organizational visions need at least a decade to take a firm down the runway. For the discombobulating technology shifts and consumer trends in video games, that life span is shrinking. But visions are still essential.

The business world has become an infinitely more complex, fluid, and unpredictable place, even for long-established organizations. By bridging the divide between brick-and-mortar and digital channels, GameStop is betting that this new venture will carry them into the digital marketplace with enough oomph to convince shareholders to stick with them for the long haul.

We’ll watch to see if they can use this revised vision for a return to market leadership.

What Trump Can Learn from Successful Organization Transformations

In my last book, Guiding Growth, I talked about what can happen when a company doesn’t have a coherent, effective vision. And I’ve found that before most managers can commit to growing an organization that is driven by vision, they need to recognize the characteristics of a company without vision. More importantly, they must recognize what happens when a company pushes forward into hyper-growth mode absent a cohesive vision. In an ongoing conversation regarding the characteristics of a leader, I thought it interesting that the current “missteps” in the Donald Trump campaign are illustrative of what happens when a leader—be they politician or CEO—cannot clearly articulate their vision, even within their own ranks, and execute the vision in the day-to-day operations of their organization.  

Many fast-growing organizations encounter a similar problem: the lack of an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. The research I’m currently up to my eyeballs in focuses on the unique capabilities of firms that successfully transform themselves in response to market disruptions. These organizations are on the receiving end of disruption caused by start-ups—incumbents who risk becoming irrelevant if they do not adapt. We are finding—no real surprise—that a guiding vision is essential before the transformational process begins, and without it, the trauma of transformation can literally kill off an organization.

National campaigns are like start-ups in that their trajectories point to size but not necessarily longevity. Rather than formulating a robust vision, then implementing ambitious strategies that lay the groundwork for a sustainable, thoughtful platform, some of the political campaigns we’re seeing rely on drama and vitriol to exploit media opportunities, which until now has served Trump well. We’ve also seen (and I’ve recently written about) how business start-ups fueled by drama and emotion but no vision just end up in a fizzle.

Trump’s political organization needs (or, more accurately, needed) a transformation not unlike the ones he should know about as a CEO.

Nowhere is a lack of vision more apparent than in his campaign’s organizational kerfuffle. Just ask Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s campaign manager—a major player in disruptive politics, who was recently arrested in Florida for simple battery. And Trump himself—taking three different views on abortion in one day, angering and alienating constituents on both sides, and touching a nerve that just may be the undoing of his campaign. With accusations of misogyny still ringing from these scandals, the candidate supported, and then recanted, a view that should abortion become illegal, women deserve punishment.

Much like the development of a start-up, this transition of a reality TV star into a serious contender for the Republican nomination requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations. Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they don’t include too many nasty surprises and errors along the way. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional leaders with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a clear vision and survive the steep challenges brought on by accelerated growth. But a direct correlation exists between the competency of vision management and the rate at which firms (and campaigns) can successfully grow and sustain themselves.

The one candidate with seemingly endless airtime to explain his views to the American people should give everyone, supporters and nonsupporters alike, pause as to his ability to lead.

Trump may even be a believer in vision. But he lacks the understanding of how to integrate “vision” in the daily demands of leading the race for, and then winning, his party’s nomination. The highs and lows of each day—the crises, the opportunities, the ever-evolving scandals—have clearly pushed vision to the back burner. Meanwhile, as the tension mounts during primary season, the Trump campaign seems less and less to agree on what they’re really about. “Make America Great Again” is neither a vision nor the raison d’être component of a vision. We need to hear a far more nuanced aspiration—perhaps closer to the existential level—of what this country can become, how he plans to achieve it, and the values that will undergird the executive branch, Congress, and the American people. The question, “What is your position on X?” elicits different responses from the campaign, and in short order, perhaps those who used to see him as a hero-iconoclast are left wondering, “What does he believe in?”