Stop in the Name of Leadership

Talent Management

July 18, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

As a 10-year board member of the Peter Drucker Foundation, I had many opportunities to listen to this great man. Among the myriad wise things I have heard him say, the wisest was, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

Very true, indeed. Think about your own organization. Have you ever attended a corporate retreat or executive training session that was titled something like Stupid Things We’re Doing That We Need to Stop Doing?

Or, when was the last time your CEO delivered an internal talk that focused on his negative traits and his efforts to stop this destructive behavior? Can you even imagine your CEO (or immediate supervisor) admitting a personal failing in public and outlining his efforts to stop doing it?

Probably not.

There are good reasons for this, largely allied to the positive tone and fast-forward momentum organizations try to maintain. Everything in an organization is designed to demonstrate a commitment to positive action – and couched in terms of “doing something.” We will start paying attention to our customers (rather than stop talking about ourselves). We must begin to listen more attentively (rather than stop playing with our BlackBerrys while others are talking).

Likewise, the recognition and reward systems in most enterprises are geared to acknowledge the doing of something. We get credit for doing something good. We rarely get credit for ceasing to do something bad. Yet, they are two different sides of the same coin.

Think of the times you might have seen colleagues go on a sales call and return with a huge order. If they’re like the salespeople I know, they’ll come back to the office ready to regale anyone who’ll listen with a blow-by-blow account of how they closed the deal.

But let’s turn that scenario around. What if, during that sales call, these salespeople crunch some numbers and realize they were about to agree to a deal that actually costs the company money with every unit sold? What if they decided, on the spot, to stop negotiating and say “no” to that sale? Do they rush back to the office and brag about the bad deal they avoided?

Hardly. That’s because avoiding mistakes is one of those unseen, unheralded achievements to which we devote little time or thought. And yet, many times, averting a bad deal or situation can affect the bottom line more significantly than scoring a big sale.

Think of Gerald Levin, the formerly admired chairman of Time Warner during the 1990s. He was hailed as a revolutionary business leader who foresaw the future of cable TV and helped invent HBO, and also transformed the company from a hodgepodge of magazines, music and movies to a media powerhouse.

But in 2000, Levin made a mistake. He merged Time Warner with online service AOL. It was the biggest corporate merger in U.S. history at the time – promising an organization that would dominate the media landscape for decades.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The merger nearly destroyed Time Warner: Its stock lost 80 percent of its value, and thousands of employees lost the bulk of their retirement savings. As for Levin, he lost his job, a big chunk of his net worth and all of his reputation. He went from being chairman of Time Warner to being the architect of the worst corporate merger in U.S. history (with the possible exception of the recent Daimler-Chrysler debacle).

Now, imagine if Levin had walked away at any point during the negotiations for this merger. Chances are, we’d never know about it (or wouldn’t give it much attention if we did). Levin certainly wouldn’t have held a press conference to announce the companies weren’t merging. If he had applied the brakes to this deal, though, his reputation and net worth might have remained intact.

That’s the funny thing about stopping negative behaviors and actions. It gets no attention, but it can be as critical as everything else we do put together. As you evaluate your own performance, consider how what you aren’t – or shouldn’t be – doing is having a negative impact.