Changing Your Mind in the Executive Suite

I’ve posted before about why it’s a shame our obsession with "consistency" prevents people from changing their mind. The John Kerry flip-flop saga illuminated this obsession.

Daniel Gross has a piece on Slate about U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney and how his corporate success taught him that changing your views based on the market you’re playing in is common business practice — but it’s not necessarily smart politics:

…Such hypocrisy, which turns off voters, is something like a job requirement for CEOs. In the executive suite, abandoning deeply held attitudes and reversing positions are job requirements. How often have you seen a CEO proclaim that a struggling unit is not for sale, only to put it on the block a few months later? A CEO will praise a product to the skies one day and then cancel it the next. He’ll boast, sincerely, that his company is No. 1 in the industry and then, when he quits the next day to run a rival, claim that the new firm is tops. CEOs take their cues from Mike Damone of Fast Times at Ridgemont High: "Act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be."

These business flips are fine, because in the corporate world, people don’t confuse advocacy of a company’s strategy or products and services with personal honor or integrity. Nobody expects Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to wear suits made at Wal-Mart, or Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert to furnish his homes with appliances from Sears, or for the gazillionaires behind Triarc to eat lunch at Arby’s.

Good CEOs don’t simply stake out public positions and stick to them for 20 years. They devise new business strategies and business plans to cope with changing market conditions. Energy-company executives who are suddenly eager to do something about global warming aren’t seen as hypocrites, they’re seen as shrewd operators. If the world changes, you don’t simply do and say the same thing. You bring in Bain & Company, commission a study, announce a restructuring, start manufacturing in China.

5 Responses to Changing Your Mind in the Executive Suite

  1. Peter Parkes says:

    I agree that there’s a difference between changing ones mind and a lack of integrity, which Gross’ piece seems to conflate.

    What would be interesting, though, would be to investigate whether there’s evidence of politicians who’ve gained (either votes or respect) by explaining their changing views in a compelling way – and I suspect that it’s this explaining part which will make a difference to public perception of flip-flopping.

  2. Consistency is an extremely powerful motivator in marketing and sales. So powerful that Vietnamese interrogators used it to get captured American soldiers to denounce the USA on film during the Vietnam war. Check out the book “Influence: The Pscyhology of Persuasion” for a great discussion of it.

  3. krishna says:

    “Resistance to change” is as old as time itself. CEOs seem to follow the old adage “While you are in Rome, be Roman”.

    I think politicians also know it’s important to make these changes and they do it in their lives often – be it in their thoughts, ideology and philosophy. It’s just that they don’t know how to sell it to their voters.

    The day they get it right, you can find a bunch of turncoats at the Capitol Hill.

  4. Dave Jilk says:

    Certainly it is good for politicians and business people alike to remain open minded in the face of new evidence and changing circumstances.

    But there are problems with changing positions, especially those that have been taken publicly. First, if you are elected on the pretense of one position and now change it, you have deceived the voters who elected you. Second, it leads voters to question whether all of your positions lack confidence and conviction. If you changed your position on X, what’s to stop you from changing back next week?

    This is all true of CEOs and other leaders, too. Who’s going to follow a CEO who changes direction too frequently?

    As with most things, there is a balance, and one builds a record over time of foolish consistency, changing with the wind, or general steadfastness with an open mind. It’s the record over time and over many instances that matters.

  5. Toney Lasher says:

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