Executives and Empathy

One of the major global IT companies has a saying

Its not personal, you were just road kill.

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“Road kill” refers to the fact that your career destruction was not a personal act but simply a result of a shift in an executive’s strategic direction, or a whim. Although it feels personal to the hedgehog, there was nothing personal from the eighteen wheel truck driver’s perspective, and why should it. The phrase is normally used when the hedgehog is well known to the driver of the eighteen wheeler.

Lets take a systems thinking view of this phenomena.

Whence Road Kill?

Why “road kill”? “Road kill” refers to the “unintentional” destruction of someone’s career when an executive rolls out a top down strategy.

Whence Top Down?

Why a top down strategy rather than a bottom up strategy? “Top down” puts the executive in charge. They can be seen to be active in the initiative. At the end of the year, they point at the result of the initiative and claim them for themselves. “Top Down” is a Dragon Slayer strategy.

Have you ever noticed that a visit to the local Doctor (GP) normally results in either a prescription for pills, or a referral to a consultant (a specialist doctor)? That’s because doctors in the UK get a bachelors of medicine, bachelors of surgery which is one degree with two titles. In order to maintain their status in society and justify their high salary, the GP wants to be in control of your treatment. Doctors are finding life increasing stressful as the internet allows people to self diagnose or check their doctor’s diagnosis. If you receive a diagnosis of Diabetes you can expect Metformin or Insulin as a treatment. Alternatively, your doctor will prescribe a change of lifestyle, a change of diet and prescription of daily exercise and regular vigorous walks in the Welsh Mountains. Changing lifestyle is as much to do with changing your social network.

So why do some Doctors prefer to prescribe medicine? In the UK, only Doctors can prescribe medicine, patients cannot just rock up at a chemist and ask for whatever they would like. Doctors act as a gatekeeper to medicine. If a doctor convinces someone to change their lifestyle, it is the patient who gets the credit for their cure. In other words, some Doctors prescribe medicine rather than lifestyle because it puts them in control whereas lifestyle changes are in the control of the patient.

This is not meant to be medical advice. Always consult a doctor!

Similarly, only executives can implement top down strategies. People at the gemba (where the work is done, the coal face) cannot implement top down strategies. They have to get the support of executives to do so. Top down strategies empower the executive, giving them something to point to at review time.

Whence the need for Empowerment?

Executives are like sharks. They need to keep moving or they will drown. Its not their fault, its the lack of life support at such high altitudes. They need to keep demonstrating value otherwise they will be out in the next corporate reshuffle caused by the top down initiative of a more senior executive or the turmoil caused by a merger or acquisition*


The executive suite can be a very lonely place. As an executive, you have probably seen a number of your friends turned into road kill… often at your own hand. The safest thing to do is not have friends. You are constantly fighting turf wars with other executives, with minor skirmishes being fought at lower levels of the organisation requiring your close attention. You hire ambitious individuals to get the job done, and each one of them is looking to stab you in the back and take your job as they seek to reach the top of the pyramid. Friends become a liability as you climb the ladder, they may reveal a weakness or may be held hostage in some executive action. The executive suite can be a very lonely place.



There are no training courses for executives. There are no training courses to prepare people for a role in the executive suite. MBAs and their flawed case based approaches teach students what good looked like a decade ago but do not teach practical day to day skills for today. Harvard Business Review and its monthly serving of early majority ideas provided comfort for executives looking for ideas. The HBR Online blog is a machine gun rapidly firing out anxiety inducing ideas reminding executives of the things they are not doing. Add subscriptions to CourseRA, Economist, Wired, McKinsey and you are fully in overload, and in need of beautiful expert consultants to help with your anxiety. None of them talk about failure, about things that other executives tried but failed. Talking about failure would only make you feel less inadequate.

And none of them teach obvious practical skills that you need to perform well in the long run.

How many of them teach the following strategies:

  1. Coaching and skills to help others learn. To enable executives to distribute their strategies effectively rather than having to rely on consultants.
  2. Real Options so that executives can effectively risk manage their organisations, and learn to make decisions when faced with uncertainty.
  3. Cynefin so that executives can understand the appropriate approach for each problem.
  4. Exaptation so that executives can reuse existing people and assets instead of buying new products and services.
  5. Safe to Fail so that executives can ensure that initiatives are safe to fail, and they can teach their organisation to be safe to fail.
  6. Culture. How to see it and how to left shift it to where they want to be.
  7. How to build a learning network that extends beyond their organisation so that they can learn from other organisation’s failures.
  8. The values and principles of Lean, Flow and Agile so that they understand and further the state of the art.
  9. Facilitation skills so that they can show by example how their managers can step back and let others do the work in a focused and risk managed manner.
  10. Cost cutting.


Many executives are often blind to the realities of what is happening in their organisation. They rely on second, third and fourth hand accounts of the impacts of their initiatives. They receive their intel from power points that are beautiful with beautiful images and beautiful diagrams and beautiful prose that tell beautiful stories that are written by beautiful story writers who are beautiful consultants from beautiful firms.

When the executives “Go to the Gemba” to see the work, it is part of carefully prepared state visits that would make ambassadors and state department civil servants blush. It is joked that the queen thinks the world smells of paint because everywhere she goes, one hundred metres in front of her is a decorator painting the walls. Executives think the world smells of fresh powerpoint, immaculate Kanban boards and improv presentation skills.

When executives do make impromptu visits they are made aware that they are causing a disruption.

No one teaches executives how to read the raw data or create a culture where no one notices when they make an impromptu visit.


Most executives rely on consultancies for introducing change. Consultancies have access to skills that are not available in the organisation. In reality, organisations have better access to the skills.

Consultancies are great for people looking to get diverse experience, or build their brand. Most competent practitioners in a new skill are unlikely to work for a consultancy. Why would you work for a consultancy and give up 60%-70% of the fee? Furthermore, world class experts want to build their own brand rather than be subservient to the consultancy’s brand.

Assuming you are an executive who knows the community you want to hire from. You will struggle to bring them into the organisation. You will spend orders of magnitude more effort to bring in a world class expert over the effort of bringing in someone mediocre from a consultancy on the preferred supplier list. Most organisations are geared to make it easy for executives to get good support from consultancies rather than top class support from world leading experts.

Consultancies come with other added benefits. If you bring in someone from a top consultancy, they will have a hot line to the top of the organisation. Whilst you need to respect the hierarchy, anything that threatens the success of your consultant will go straight to their engagement partner who will tell the top guy what to do.

The Executive Team

Most executive teams are not an executive team. They are a bunch of individuals each with individual responsibility for their own initiatives. They succeed or fail according to the success of their initiatives. How often are the entire executive team held responsible for the success of an initiative? If they are, they becomes the responsibility of the CEO.

Most executives really are on their own.


Safety Net

Many executives have spend many, many, many years building a network within their organisation. They need the network in order to make them effective. Studies have shown that shown that high performers at one firm become significant less effective when they move to another firm. It would seem that executive effectiveness is much a function of an their network and relationships. Often an executive moves organisation, to discover they it was their network and relationships that made them successful, and their skills are not enough.

Al-Noor Ramji understood the value of the network. He successfully moved from Swiss Bank to Dresdner Klienwort Benson to QWest to BT, and each time a chunk of his team followed him.

I know a number of senior executives who devoted a significant chunk of their career to building an organisation. Executives who failed to get a similar role when they left the organisation and are now working in a much smaller role because their network has no value to them. Executive effectiveness does not tend to be transferable.

In most cases, an executive’s network in the organisation they leave has no value to their new employer. The exception is consultancies. A friend who worked for a consultancy once told me that they had reached the time in their career where they needed to work for their client, a government department, for a few years. They would hire a team of managers to report to them before rejoining their current employer as a partner. Then the network and all of the relationships would be valuable, especially their successor who they would chose and mentor. This is why consultancies are often perceived as the recruitment consultancies for senior executive positions.

Is it any wonder that executives are often risk averse?

Whence Empathy

I started writing this series of posts where “Executive and Agile Beliefs Diverge” because I hoped to show executive a better way of thinking. As I’ve written the pieces I’ve developed empathy for executives. They exist within a system that prevents them from succeeding at introducing change.

The following are all set up to make the executive’s life hard:

  • No friends to support them
  • No training
  • No transparency
  • Consultancies without world class experience
  • No team
  • No Safety Net

Would you want a job like that?

Most organisations have a group of experts in system thinking. Perhaps they should get them to map out the systems at the executive level of their organisation to identify the system level changes that need to be made.

Me, I now have a lot more empathy for executives trying to make change happen in organisational systems that provide them little in the way of support. Rather than seeing them as the controllers of the system, perhaps we should see them as the ultimate victims of the system who need our support.

Happy Easter!


*Mergers were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a means for investment bankers to make money out of over capacity in markets. Unfortunately mergers lead to lumpy revenue streams but require maintaining high cost M&A departments. Since the 2000s, investment banks prefer to make money out of over capacity in markets through the credit derivatives markets. The credit derivatives market provide constant revenue streams which benefit from the occasional bankruptcy.



About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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