"Today, if your title has a letter in front of it — like S, E, or C — be prepared to have the lifespan of an earthworm."
A colleague of mine was making an observation. He noted that senior executives today have increasingly shorter rates of job tenure. He used statistics from the HR industry to back up his point.
It's true — senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents, and chief-level executives (especially CMOs, but also CEOs) have an average "life span" of less than two years in many organizations. For anyone looking to move into their company's executive suite, it's a fact of life that today — more than ever before — a mistake or bad job performance can bring down even the most-celebrated executive.
And often with little warning.
Individuals, who previously were championed by top brass or company boards can lose their luster with just one highly visible problem. Even with great results, their performance outside the office can be equally as deadly to a career.
Said one of my clients about her firing: "It was crazy. I delivered on all my objectives for three years in a row — in this economy! And then, for one dumb mistake, I was out before I could even try to correct it."
Fair or not, recent news highlights how the turnstile is being engaged in companies' executive suites:
1. Performance issues — the executive overseeing Apple's hardware engineering for the IPhone and IPod is leaving. According to numerous reports, SVP Mark Papermaster has lost the confidence of CEO Steve Jobs. Papermaster had worked for Apple only about a year, coming there from IBM.
Should one mistake, even one the size of "antennagate," turn a promising career into a train wreck? When Papermaster left his former employer of over 20 years to join Apple, they clearly saw value in what he was bringing to them, or he wouldn't have had such a broad job responsibility. Was Jobs looking after the company's longer-term interests with this decision?
2. Lifestyle issues — Hewlett Packard is currently rudderless with its stock dropping (and with that the value of the company) after the world's largest computer maker fired CEO Mark Hurd for his indiscretions.
Those "indiscretions" included falsifying expense reports, a not-so-smart relationship with a former movie actress, and a less than forthcoming approach when challenged on these.
Since taking over from former CEO Carly Fiorina, Hurd had overseen the doubling of the company's market value to about $100 billion. The company's value has dropped 10% since the announcement.
Should his errors in judgment have cost him his job? For all stakeholders, would HP be better served simply turning a blind eye to his poor choices?
3. Poor people skills -- When the CEO of oil giant BP was fired last month, few people shed tears for the guy. Tony Hayward had shown little remorse about the impact of the Gulf oil disaster. He came across as arrogant and showed little resolve to fix things quickly.
Should a guy who had the board's total support for his business acumen be blown away because he doesn't understand the importance of optics? Would BP have been better served if it had put another executive up front and center to deal with the problem (perhaps the guy who replaced him who seems to "get it"), then slap Tony on the wrist and send him out for some training?
Top management changes in the executive suite always throw a corporation into disarray.
In my work as a leadership coach, I'm often brought into an organization to help those at VP levels. However, in most companies, the higher up the food chain, the less likely it is for the board or top executives to invest in coaching to help the guy or lady get their footing back. This is when I hear comments like, "At his level, he should have known better."
That's naive — often what got the executive promoted was great ideas and or great results not his or her awesome social skills. It would be prudent and fiscally responsible for the HR boss to invest in making their other skills just as high caliber.
Here's my advice to anyone who is trying to get into the executive suite today: Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.
Here's to your future!
John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion dollar organizations and launching start-ups in both the U.S. and Canada. The author of two published books, he is frequently seen providing advice on TV, in magazines, and newspapers.