WHY does a household name and once-dominant business like Kodak fail? Not long ago, Eastman-Kodak was a prime Harvard Business School case study on success. Last year it filed for bankruptcy.
It got stale and out of touch, and I'll bet it had something to do with grumpy old men refusing to adapt.
Grumpiness is the preserve of old men. Once you let it in, it stays and gets worse with age. Like an early-onset degenerative disease, it feeds on its host and those who come in contact with it. Keep it out as long as you can; and when it comes, as surely it will, keep it to yourself.
Men become grumpy mainly because they are scared or in pain. We think what we were before is sometimes more important than what we are now. We get over it, but until then we can be a complete pain in the arse. We know it is so not cool to be grumpy, which makes us even more grumpy. Women also have stuff, but not so much grumpiness.
Many highly successful men in corporate structures fail at some point, and the enterprises fail with them if they are allowed to stay too long after the onset of grumpiness. I'm not talking about flash-in-the-pans, or about a discovery or event that created a success. I'm talking about career success executives who fall (relatively) from grace.
Perhaps it would be useful to start with how these guys get there in the first place. It is simple: you get the job, class of '64. But there are many of you, all equally qualified and eager. Your relative value starts to change when you get noticed for something you did above expectations. If you've got a clever boss, then he gives you something else that is beyond expectations. You do that well, you get promoted - unless you've got a boss who is protecting his limitations (early-onset grumpiness), in which case you must leave. If you've got a boss who isn't scared, he will move up and you will take his place.
And so the merry collegiate climb goes, up the corporate ladder to relative wealth and influence. Some reach the top and, if the organisation is lucky, these people trade out well financially and go on to do other wonderful things.
Others, however, stay and decay. Sometimes you get caught up in bad luck, a mistake or an industry sea change, but I'm talking about people who stay past their sell-by dates because they think it's all about them.
There are some pretty straightforward tests to apply to yourself:
1. Do all your employees agree with you all the time? "Yes people" are just the worst, aren't they? Yawn. The acid test is when you change your mind and they all change with you. If so, you are now alone and the organisation will fail (or at least start losing ground). Replace the most compliant member of your executive with someone who occasionally yells: "Bullshit!" (to avoid you starting to believe your own).
2. Don't live in the past. If you introduce yourself by what you used to be and how you got to where you are now, then you're going nowhere. Find a future reason to be in your present.
3. Money follows good ideas, not vice versa. Do not pursue money. Try out new ideas (and give your executive the space to originate some of them - hey, you're the boss, you'll get the kudos).
4. If you're doing all the talking, you should make the meetings shorter and attendance voluntary.
5. Tempt change. Organisations that are not open to change or criticism inevitably decay and crumble, and the strangest thing is that most of them see it coming and don't do anything about it. I have sat in the company of people happier to share failure than success.
If you find yourself in the company of people who have passed their sell-by date, then move on, and get away from the weight of their failure. Failure is the inability to realise what matters.
Someone once advised me of the virtue of being loose on the surface, tight inside. That's the right approach - never put your core at risk, but for goodness' sake, be fun to be around, open to new ideas and approachable. Be interesting and interested, else you will be at risk of creating an inner circle that is so tight it will strangle itself eventually.
Worse still, you'll end up in charge, but alone - in a very quiet place.
. Barnes has spent 30 years in finance and markets.