I attended Cisco Live last week, and one of the things that impressed me was how many amazing things the company has been doing that have nothing to do with products, services or revenue.
Most companies have a philanthropic budget and donate, but they don’t really seem to care if the money makes a difference. For most, philanthropy is more about uplifting their image than making a difference.
This was driven home on my flight home. I was flying Alaska Airlines when I found myself stranded in Seattle. It happened because the plane — which I know Alaska’s CEO flies in — left 20 minutes early, leaving around five of us, one of whom was disabled, stranded in Seattle. I can’t get the image out of my head of that stranded disabled guy and his poor wife, who pushed his wheelchair at a run between gates.
A lot of CEOs have no empathy for their partners, customers or investors and are all about their own compensation, and that explains to a large degree why so many companies are in antitrust trouble, starting with Facebook and ending with Apple.
In the context of my experiences both with Cisco and Alaskan Airlines, I’d like to compare Cisco’s CEO to the more common NPE CEOs we generally see. This is in the hope we can shift from NPE CEOs to CEOs who can help fix the mess of a world we live in.
I’ll close with my product of the week: the latest robotic vacuum from Roomba, which is my new standard in robotic vacuums.
The Problem With NPEs
An NPE is a narcissistic psychopathic executive and we are sadly up to our necks in them. I’d go down a list, but I’d rather avoid pissing off a bunch of them at once because many think that abuse of power is one of their rights (and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of that again this week).
You can pretty much pick them out rather quickly. NPEs have a spouse who is arm candy, they are defined largely by what they own, they are known for being cruel to subordinates, they use layoffs as a primary tool, and when they leave their jobs they also leave behind huge messes.
I was once at a table where I was the only guy and I was surrounded by women sales reps. All were stunningly beautiful, intelligent mothers, yet they still were top performers in their respective firms. All were divorced as a result of their executive spouses having cheated.
NPEs treat their spouses as jewelry and typically can’t spell fidelity. They are master manipulators who can wine and dine like nobody’s business. If they want something from you — be it sex, sales, a commitment or kids — they are the most exciting and wonderful folks to be around. When they get into power or get what they want, they are also the biggest assh*les you’ll ever meet.
When it comes to customers or investors they really don’t care. What they are focused on is their appearance (image), their conquests, and making sure others envy them. Loyalty in any form isn’t in their lexicon, and making the world a better place isn’t even remotely on their to-do list. In fact, I believe that if they had a choice between getting the car they wanted and ensuring the world would be around after they died, they’d choose the car.
The problem as I see it is that we hold these people up as positive examples, particularly when they are CEOs, and then wonder why so many companies we depend on behave badly. Rather than holding NPEs up as people we admire, I think we should treat them like an existential threat. Their lack of empathy makes them a huge danger to the rest of us, and as CEOs — particularly collectively — that danger is at scale.
Cisco’s Chuck Robbins: A Better Example
I know several CEOs, some of whom I consider friends. Chuck isn’t one I know well, but he is my standard for how a CEO should behave.
For instance, rather than starting his efforts on diversity at the bottom, where virtually everyone else does, he started at the top.
Doing Diversity Right
When you start a diversity effort at the bottom, you instantly create a nearly impervious glass ceiling, because immediately your top executive team will rightly conclude that diverse employees are a threat. This is because your executive team is likely white and male, and like musical chairs, someone is going to have to give up his job if the team is going to be diverse.
Typically they give the program lip service while ensuring that none of their direct reports are diverse to avoid the threat. They talk diversity but they’ll throw their body at any effort that makes diversity a threat to their job. (Let’s be clear — if you or I were in that spot, self-preservation would suggest we’d do that too.)
If you start at the top, the executive team already is diverse, and the only threat then comes from not doing the job well. You can give the effort more than lip service because your group already is diverse and there is no additional threat resulting from diversity. Race and sex have no real impact on your exposure.
If a firm argues that it is pro-diversity yet its board and executive team are not, it is full of crap. It is just giving the effort lip service or effectively saying diversity is fine for the peons at the bottom of the company but not fine for the royalty at the top. This showcases both that it thinks little of the rank-and-file employee and has no real interest, other than optics, in diversity.
A professor whose name I don’t recall put forward an interesting theory when Bill Gates retired and focused exclusively on philanthropy. He argued that Bill would have been far more effective had he used his power as CEO and chairman of Microsoft than he would as the richest guy in the world focused on philanthropy because, regardless of Bill’s wealth, Microsoft was more powerful.
Steve Jobs once said, and he practiced it, that corporate philanthropy was stupid because people don’t invest in companies for their philanthropy, they invest in them to make a return. If they wanted to be philanthropic, they would rather target causes important to them than have a company do it for them.
Both points have merit. Clearly Steve was incredibly successful with Apple, and Bill’s impact on making the world a better place has been muted by the limitations of his foundation. To overcome that Bill has brought in others, and collectively they have done more, but I think Chuck has taken philanthropy to a very different level.
He has taken the strength of Cisco, begun to add partners, and focused on things that can be fixed — like homelessness in Silicon Valley or the lack of skills at scale — and made significant progress. Put differently, rather than focusing on problems, he has set goals to fix them, and created a model that should have real potential to get the job done.
He has people putting themselves at risk to establish communications after disasters. They fly in with specialized vehicles, much like the National Guard does, to make sure that communications systems are functioning so that first responders know where they need to be to save lives. His focus isn’t on image, it is on driving real change.
It isn’t about looking like you care — it is about making real progress, and measuring on fixing things. Chuck gets this. If more did, we’d see far more progress on critical issues like pollution and climate change then we do now.
I still can’t get the picture of that disabled guy and his out-of-breath spouse out of my head, and I’m thinking I may never fly Alaskan Airlines again. Imagine the difference if the CEO had come out, held the plane, and helped that disabled guy into it. I and everyone else who saw it would be singing the airline’s praises.
Stop and think — when was the last time you heard about a CEO doing something like that, as opposed to engaging in insider trading, having an illicit affair, ripping off his or her own company, or treating employees, customers or investors badly?
If we want fewer NPEs we need to praise the executives who give a crap, so in my effort to walk that talk, I’m pointing out Chuck Robbins’ efforts to fix diversity and homelessness, fund disaster response and more as something we should admire and praise. The guy is truly working to make the world a better place, and if every CEO worked for that as he does, it would be.
We need it to be.
I’ve had a lot of robotic vacuums over the years and most of them have been more toy than practical utility. I started with Roombas, which initially weren’t really vacuums at all, more sweepers, and they’d initially bounce around the room like a blind gerbil that had too much coffee.
They often seemed more interested in marring the walls and furniture than cleaning up anything, but they did pick up most of the visible dirt and hair. They also got stuck a lot, they had very limited dirt storage, and you still had to run a real vacuum if you wanted the room to look clean.
Well the line has come a long way since then, and the
Roomba i7+ with automatic dirt disposal is near the top of line. (There is an even better
Roomba S9+ with more suction that is also better in corners, but I haven’t tried it yet.)
Unlike those early models the i7+ is a vacuum, it is relatively smart (it hasn’t gotten stuck yet in the three weeks I’ve had it), and its big feature is that it self-empties into a receptacle. Now the receptacle does have a vacuum cleaner bag in it, so it isn’t as easy to use as one of the vacuums where you just empty the container.