R Gopalakrishnan’s new book “Crash: Lessons from the Entry and Exit of CEOs” comes close to being a stellar read. There are parts in the book that capture your imagination and provoke you into thinking on lines you won’t otherwise. But by the time you reach the final chapter, the glint wears off to a certain extent.
For the uninitiated, Gopalakrishnan carries a formidable pedigree. He has been at the helm of top companies including Tata Sons and Unilever and now serves as an independent director on the boards of many.
The central idea of Crash is that financial performance is not the only metric against which business leaders are judged. R Gopalakrishnan turns the spotlight on a lesser-acknowledged aspect. He calls it the soft stuff. This includes the culture fit and leadership style of the CEOs.
He goes on to say that the financial performance without staying in good books of key stakeholders is professional harakiri. Vikram Pandit’s is a case in point. His exit came close on the heels of improved quarterly performance. The handpicked case-studies of 15 CXOs from across the world
Ancient Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once remarked:
“The Higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk.”
It’s easy to conclude that the leaders mentioned in the book paid the ultimate price for their hubris and autocracy. But what happened behind the curtains was that most of these CEOs fell out of favor with their board of directors and in some cases, their predecessors.
In one of the chapters, R Gopalakrishnan makes a crisp point about leaders’ hubris. The reality is that trappings of a fancy designation often fool people into thinking that they are the top dogs. But history is evident that such notions don’t last long and often end on a sad note. Further
“Although it feels as if you are in charge when you are the CEO, the truth is that you may have many masters inside and outside the company.”R Gopalakrishnan
The moot point is that even as a CEO, you are not entirely in charge of everything.
The previous leadership, the founding family members who are still around, the people who you serve on the board, the stock market analysts – they all contribute to your fate. Any slip-up in catering to these or living up to their expectations could prove devastating.
All the case studies in the book underscore the lack of congruence between the CEO and his/her stakeholders as the main reason for the demise of many a CEO. The stories of Carly Fiorina (HP), Travis Kalanick (Uber), Vishal Sikka (Infosys), Anshu Jain (Deutsche Bank), Vikram Pandit (Citi Group) work well to this end.
Vikram Pandit who led the Citi group through its most turbulent chapters was unceremoniously fired one fine day. The board declared that they found him to be risk-averse and a bad fitment in Citi’s future goals. Gopalakrishnan points towards the less obvious that Pandit’s casualty was a part of the wide corporate intrigue played out at Citi.
Another interesting case the author cites in the book is that of John Walter, former COO of AT&T, who resigned within 9 months of joining the telecom giant. The outsiders are always fed the bulls**t script of “heresigned amicably“, but the truth is always obscure.
In this case, John Walter never got along with Chairman Robert Allen. Reluctant to hang up his boots anytime soon, Robert Allen was always around and had a say in the company decisions. Gopalakrishnan cites this as one of the crucial reasons behind exits of many a CEO: the predecessors not giving up the reins.
He makes many sagacious observations throughout the book. The one I particularly liked was where he urges the CEOs designate to tread carefully. He avers,
“Be aware of predecessors who say things like ‘be your own man’, ‘take your decisions boldly’, and ‘remember that you are different from the previous leader’.”
The big takeaway for the corporate leaders from Crash is that when you are at the top, you have to watch your back at every step. The machinations in the book and the lessons thereof reminded me of Robert Greene’s essential advice in his book Mastery: “Think of the workplace as a kind of theatre in which every character is always wearing a mask.”
Despite the author’s best intentions, the interest quotient wanes towards the final chapters. The chapter about the Indian company Voltas and its former president feels rushed and underwhelming.
Then, the final chapter – about Vishal Sikka, former CEO & MD of Indian IT major Infosys – wastes the goodwill built up in the preceding chapters. It is stretched and unnecessarily littered with legalese.
But still, “Crash” is smart and knowing and absorbing and deserves a place on your reading desk.