The New Chief Officer No One Wants to Meet

He's the guy (sometimes gal, but she's more rare) who walks around and talks about how many people need to get canned if the enterprise is ever going to really start moving. Accountability is his creed (or at least your accountability is).

Through a Glass Darkly

He thinks his intentions are pure. He thinks that the slackers are winning. He thinks that they just don't get it and they never will. He thinks they're holding us all back and that if someone smart enough had the authority to can them all today that it would be the best thing for not only the company, but also for the people who remain. After all, he thinks, we all know who "the incompetent and overpaid slackers are." Who would have a problem letting them go? If they did, they should probably be gone too.

It sounds so seductive, this idea of the CFO. No silly rabbit! Not the Chief Financial Officer. It's the mythical role that every frustrated corporate Sisyphus longs to see or inhabit -- the Chief Firing Officer!

Most of the people who fantasize about this role fall into the gifted but frustrated category (i.e., Sisyphus). What is strange to me is that these intellectually gifted individuals have spent very little, if any, thought on either what sort of world would be required for the CFO to exist or what sorts of consequences are likely to follow if such a role existed in their enterprise.

C'mon along with me fellow traveller, as long as we are on this particular version of fantasy island, let's take a look around and see the sights.

Be Careful What You Wish For 

First, what world would we have to live in for the role of the CFO to exist? In order for the CFO to have the power to fire people at will one or more of the following items must be true for your enterprise:

  • Due process in personnel reductions must die as a concept -- Yep, that’s right! In order for the CFO to be effective in “living the dream" as it is envisioned, the decisions of the CFO must be final and not subject to either due process or investigation. Fire after approval from a governing body does not equal fire at will.
  • All consensus based decisions must be viewed with scorn -- If an enterprise is going to make rapid decisions without checks and balances when actual individuals will pay the price, the enterprise cannot suffer consensus processes and mindsets for decisions where human beings are not impacted. One person's subjective view (the CFO’s) of another person's (not the CFO’s) value must be the viewed as beyond question and it's tough to defend that firing decisions should have less process and debate than non firing decisions.

Next, let’s take a look at the view of the enterprise now in place:

  • Almost everyone is afraid to talk to the CFO -- Not only could talking to the CFO result in a personal pink slip that day, but the only valid business reason to talk to the CFO is to get someone else fired. Few people want to pull the trigger and I would argue even less want to aim the gun. Even the ones who claim to want the title would be wary if it were actually real.
  • Communication and collaboration go in the tank -- How can you have a meaningful dialogue when the potential exists for the losing party to run to the CFO and lodge a complaint with no due process? One wrong word, and it's adios muchacho.
  • Agile dies and waterfall re-emerges as the dominant methodology for development -- Why would people trust their jobs in a non-linear collaborative process when they can have a series of sign-offs as protection from the CFO?
  • The culture of fear reigns supreme -- How could there be any other outcome if an enterprise hires someone who's job it is to fire not just one person, but many people at will? If the executioner lived in your neighborhood and was eliminating people like they were players on a reality show, how would you comport yourself? With confidence or fear?

Coming Out On The Other Side 

What many people seem to forget is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Most systems and principles that we rely on are set up that way for a reason. Usually, when a social system is beholden to a principle, it's because those who came before us saw that principle as critical to the functioning of the social system. We live in a society that has many principles embedded within our social fabric. Two of the most critical are:

  • The rules inside of systems must be skewed towards those with less power and authority -- this principal is what helps us avoid the police state and keeps authoritarian systems that destroy individuals in check.
  • Individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty -- the placing of the burden of proof onto the systems of authority and the accuser is the principal that attempts to ensure that social systems err towards letting one guilty individual go unpunished rather than one innocent individual was punished unjustly.

The “slackers” loathed by the wannabe CFO may indeed be present, but everyone knows that a mass purging of the crew almost always causes more harm than good in terms of morale, talent retention, industry reputation and productivity. When people come to me and start openly wishing for the power and the title with a giddy sense of glee in their eyes I don't know whether to laugh, cry or tell them that they're cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

I do however, know one thing: If the gifted, but frustrated, CFO wannabes stopped putting so much effort into thinking about whom to give the sack they would have a much easier time turning the enterprise into something grrrreat!

Title image by Harsh Patel (Flickr) via a CC By-NC-ND 2.0 License