Finding a Cure for "CEO-itis"

By: Joann S. Lublin for The Wall Street Journal

Warning: You could be at risk of contracting "CEO-itis."

An affliction of arrogance that plagues many people picked for powerful posts, its symptoms include a tendency toward isolation, belief that you're smarter than others, preference for loyalists, aversion to changing course even in the face of failure -- and love of royal treatment.

It appears to occur when promising managers reach the corner office or other C-suite spots. Once infected, once-successful executives often underperform and put themselves at great risk of early exits, experts say.

In June, John Figueroa quit after 17 months as chief executive of Omnicare Inc. "He believed he accomplished the goals established by the board,'' the nursing-home pharmacy operator announced.

But Mr. Figueroa also acted imperiously, ignored suggestions from colleagues, and made extensive personal use of the corporate aircraft, according to people familiar with the situation.

In short, the CEO title went to his head, one informed individual says. McKesson Corp., Mr. Figueroa's prior employer, had recommended him as a collaborative team player, another person remembers. Omnicare declined to comment.

Mr. Figueroa says he's "very proud of all the great things we accomplished" during his Omnicare stint, though he concedes he wasn't a warm and fuzzy boss. "I certainly did not make friends with everyone as tough decisions had to be made," he says. "We changed things very quickly, and looking back, I could have been better" at communicating with the board and managers.

Similarly, while Mr. Figueroa denies abusing perks, he confirms that a friend of his daughter flew with him, his wife and daughter on the corporate aircraft during a business trip.

Every top executive once was a rising star, building a base of influence. What changes them along the way?

David Kirchhoff, head of Weight Watchers International Inc., admits that he's had bouts of CEO-itis since assuming command in 2007. "It's almost impossible to avoid completely," he explains. "People treat you differently" when you become chief executive. He says he keeps his ego in check by working closely with people who enjoy teasing him.

Senior managers with an inflated sense of their superiority repeat actions long after they stop working because they overlook "information that has changed," says Carol S. Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and author of "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." The rapid pace of change in most businesses requires more questioning, not less, she notes.

The problem, also called CEO disease, "is beyond epidemic," in part because executives today are so stressed that they fail to open themselves to new ideas and see themselves as "God's gift to the world," says Richard Boyatzis, an organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science professor at Case Western University. He co-wrote "Primal Leadership,'' a 2002 book that discusses CEO disease.

Still, it is possible to get ahead without getting a swelled head. The remedy, leadership specialists say, involves the often painful process of reattaching an executive's feet to the ground.

Here are suggestions, gathered from ten present and former CEOs, for how to maintain equilibrium after you land a top job:

Surround yourself with highly capable lieutenants. 

"You have to have enough self-confidence to know you'll do well if you have a bunch of smart people doing well," Mr. Kirchhoff observes.

Strong, talented associates "make it easy to acknowledge I don't always – or even often – have the best idea in the room," concurs Scott Wine, CEO of Polaris Industries Inc., a maker of off-road vehicles, motorcycles and snowmobiles. That's why "I cannot be arrogant or expect unwarranted privileges," he adds.

Encourage dissent, discourage sycophants.

Help subordinates overcome their fear of offering frank feedback – but resist their seductive accolades.

"Reward people who challenge you," recommends William George, a former CEO of Medtronic Inc. "I didn't promote people who didn't take me on."

Mr. George says he especially disliked associates who frequently flattered him or showed up uninvited at meetings in order to gain face time with the CEO. For the worst sycophants, "I actually had to move them out," recollects Mr. George, now a management practice professor at Harvard Business School.

Regularly admit and fix your mistakes. 

Taking responsibility for your errors "is a very powerful way to keep yourself humble,'' Mr. Kirchhoff says. He recently took his own advice.

Weight Watchers' first-quarter profit fell more than expected on virtually flat revenue growth. During a May earnings call, Mr. Kirchhoff blamed the disappointing performance on execution issues. "I bear responsibility for those misses," he said.

Treat every employee with respect. 

Carin Stutz, hired to lead Cosi Inc. in January, is trying to revive the struggling fast-casual dining chain. Her predecessor resigned shortly after Nasdaq warned that it might delist the company. 

"There is definitely a lot more attention and visibility in this (CEO) role," says Ms. Stutz, previously a Brinker International Inc. executive. "I feel more responsible than ever to respect and support people."

Ms. Stutz chose a highly visible way to demonstrate respect for Cosi workers. She spent ten hours a day during her initial five weeks as CEO going through store-manager training. Among other things, she baked bread, prepared food and ran the cash register at restaurants in three cities.

Find an objective sounding board outside the office. 

A spouse, executive coach or informal group of advisors can alert you about looming signs of CEO-itis.

Mr. George, for instance, has attended a men's support group every Wednesday morning for nearly 35 years. "You're losing it (humility),'' some members warned while he ran Medtronic.

He says he was being too direct with his employees because he thought he had all the answers. Thanks to such reality checks, Mr. George adds, "you pay attention to your behavior.''