Trouble At The Top

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2009

As the economy continues to falter and companies are forced to rethink their business plans, executives have two choices: rise to the top or sink to the bottom. But what differentiates a successful exec from a failing one? And can a troubled executive change his behavior?

Linda Kammire Tiffan—one of our Best Bosses 2009 judges—says that, yes, failing execs can be saved. Tiffan, the co-founder of T2 Management Consultants, a Sarasota-based company specializing in leadership effectiveness and executive coaching, has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and, with her husband, worked for an international consulting firm in Atlanta for 15 years before relocating here,

“I’ve coached everyone from plant managers to senior executives and the question is always, why do outwardly talented people make poor decisions, or run off good people, or overlook the obvious, or fail to have willing followers?” Tiffan says.

The key to behavior management is twofold, Tiffan explains. Personality traits are hard-wired from a young age—therefore, personality is not being modified, behavior is. In that vein, execs should be able to recognize what triggers “bad” behavior. “If you’re aware of your tendencies, you’re more likely to be able to circle back and undo the damage, or do something about the behavior before it actually takes place,” she says.     

Ten Reasons Why Executives Fail

Arrogance. Excessive self-confidence can lead execs to be overly ambitious and aggressive, and might indicate they’re not open to new ideas. “This discourages dialogue and input,” Tiffan says.

Melodrama. This is the person who takes credit for everything. “Often, his management style is crisis-oriented,” Tiffan explains. “He likes chaos but that can be confusing and unnerving for everyone around him.”


Volatility. “When someone is overly excitable, his mood can shift suddenly, and he can be viewed as unstable,” Tiffan says. Volatile execs can escalate a bad situation instead of calming it down.

Excessive caution. “This is a problem when execs are so cautious that they don’t proactively address problems,” says Tiffan. Businesses can’t move forward when decision-making is stalled.


Habitual distrust. “Excessive skepticism usually manifests itself in someone who is very negative,” Tiffan explains. “This person has a low trust level, and, in return, they tend not to be trusted by those around them.” Such execs are often very invested in the status quo.


Aloofness. Usually viewed as unapproachable, cold and insensitive, the aloof executive is often “not engaged or in the loop, so he’s blindsided when things go wrong,” Tiffan says.


Passive resistance. “People tend to second-guess a leader like this, because no one really knows where he stands,” says Tiffan. “Execs like this hold their cards too close to the vest.” In the absence of information, employees fill in the blanks themselves, often with erroneous information.


Perfectionism. Becoming mired in details without seeing the big picture leads these executives to a lack of strategic planning and thinking. “Especially in today’s environment, receptivity to change is a key success factor,” Tiffan says. “Being overly perfectionistic has a lot to do with one’s ability to be flexible.”


Eagerness to please. This is a problem when someone is so concerned with how others see them that he or she has a hard time keeping employees accountable or addressing poor performance.


Mischeviousness and eccentricity. This is a person who cuts corners and bends the rules. “If you look at some of the high-profile executives making headlines right now because of their behavior, this trait, along with arrogance, is one of the leading ones,” says Tiffan. “Often, this person is an excessive risk-taker, and therefore his integrity will be questioned.” 

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