Business Today

Treacherous Terrain

The corner office has too many pitfalls, but building relationships with key stakeholders may help when the going gets tough
Sourav Mukherji   New Delhi     Print Edition: August 25, 2019
Treacherous Terrain
Crash: Lessons from the entry and exit of CEOs \ By R. Gopalakrishnan

I had mixed feelings after going through Crash, penned by a prolific writer with vast industry exposure. Books on leadership come a dime a dozen and they usually fall in two categories. The pedantic ones, written by academicians (like me), belabour platitudinous points. Others, often written by practising managers, narrate and sermonise strategy success or shortfall and turf wars. This book is neither. The author's insights are drawn from his rich corporate experience, and he backs them up with further research in diverse fields such as economics, mathematical biophysics and psychology.

That the book focusses on CEO exits also aroused my interest. Job exits, from a typical perspective, are often considered failures, and there is a growing understanding that failures can be a better teacher than success. Crash lives up to that expectation. Besides, a success saga mostly plays up grand qualities of people and does not dwell much on randomness, corporate machinations or acts of betrayal. In contrast, exit stories indicate that it is not performance alone, but relationships with key stakeholders such as the board of governors and influential shareholders which determine all hirings and firings. Gopalakrishnan's book explores this sinister side of corporations where decisions are made to look rational post facto, and power struggles determine outcomes.

However, the author's insights could have been aligned better with the 15 eventful case studies which narrate how the CEOs were sacked. The first part of the book talks about the changes in CEO behaviour after they assumed power, but the case studies do not delve deep enough to substantiate those points. The stories also lack uniformity. For instance, the chapter on Infosys and Vishal Sikka runs into 31 pages while that on Ramesh Sarin at Voltas has less than six pages. Neither narrative allows us to apply the six-stage monomyth of business leaders that the writer hypothesises in the first part of the book.

The chapter on Sikka makes for interesting reading, though. It puts together a lot of information about the controversial acquisition of Panaya and leaves readers wondering how such a failure could occur in an organisation known for its ethical practices. The author ends the chapter by posing some relevant questions. But I would have liked to know his take on corporate governance failure. After all, we are increasingly witnessing the same in many Indian companies which we used to idolise. Does it happen because the power is going to their heads? Is it about hubris that destroyed the legendary mountaineer Rob Hall as overconfidence made him ignore his own cardinal rule of safety? After reading all 15 case studies, I felt like an untrained onlooker of modern painting. I could not appreciate many of the individual elements, but I possibly got the overall sense that the painter wanted to convey.

We have not yet figured out what makes leaders succeed or fail because the link between leadership behaviour and performance is tenuous. Moreover, performance is overwhelmingly used as a proxy for good or bad leadership. But that should not deter us from trying to decode what else affects leadership behaviour, and Crash is a reasonably good attempt at that. Interestingly, most of the case studies have strong overtones of backroom politics being the decisive factor behind CEO exits.

The book is also replete with useful tips on how to lead in a complex and ruthlessly contested corporate world. And the most important message for smart CEOs? They must reflect on how they have changed, whether their relationships with influential stakeholders have changed, and if such changes would serve their organisations better or help fulfil their targets. If one is in doubt, the author advises the CEO to listen to his wife. Now, which God-fearing man would not agree with that?

The writer teaches post-graduate and doctoral courses in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at IIM-Bangalore.

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