Working Wounded: Out of Touch CEOs

Last week Ford announced that it lost more than $12 billion, including a loss of almost $6 billion in just the fourth quarter. And with new cars and trucks years from the showroom, the news will probably get worse before it gets better for the company's balance sheet.

Also last week, half a world away in Davos, Switzerland, there was a noteworthy announcement that helped put the Ford loss into context. PricewaterhouseCoopers released an international survey of 1,100 CEOs regarding threats from climate change. Forty percent of the international business leaders surveyed expressed concerns about threats from climate change. However, only 18 percent of the executives from the United States expressed the same level of concern.

Maybe I've seen one too many shots of melting glaciers, but I see this as yet another example of how CEOs are losing touch. From the limos to the private jets, it's tough to stay in touch with what's really going on when you live in a bubble. Although this is not the sole reason for the loss at Ford -- crappy cars would also merit consideration -- losing touch with employees and customers is a key part of the problem at Ford and many other companies today.

But rather than just point fingers at CEOs, I decided to see how in touch I was with today's marketplace. And the results weren't pretty.

First, some background: I pride myself in paying attention to what's going on in the marketplace. As a journalist I have to. At least that's what I thought before my research showed me just how out of touch I had become.

I started my journey by going to the store with my daughter to buy some jeans. Instead of hanging out with a magazine like I usually do, I followed her around the store. I saw groups of girls shopping while music videos blasted from every direction, and I noticed a surprising number of adult women shopping in the teen department. It was a glimpse into a new universe for me.

Next stop on the journey was an MTV show about sweet 16 parties. As the parent of a soon-to-be-16-year-old, this experience qualified as a nightmare. Think I'm exaggerating? When the birthday girl said that her party was a steal at $35,000, I had to be resuscitated.

Finally, I went into a Starbucks to calm my nerves from my anthropological journey. I suddenly noticed that the store was full of college kids. Wow, if only I'd been able to afford a $4 latte when I was an undergrad. But that wasn't the biggest lesson from this part of my journey. Looking around, I noticed that almost all the kids were imbibing at least three kinds of media at one time -- text messages, computer games, cell phone calls, conversations, books and even some videos thrown in for good measure. It wore me out just watching them.

Now I'm a born again researcher. I've made a commitment to myself to get out more. At least weekly, I'm going to go to a place on the dial, or a place in my community that I wouldn't normally frequent -- just to get a handle on what I'm not paying enough attention to. Spend a bit of time doing the same thing, and maybe we can all inoculate ourselves from the kind of nasty surprises that Ford is now trying to overcome. Staying in touch needs to be job one for all of us, especially the CEOs.

Quote of the Week

"It's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you think that just ain't so." -- Satchel Paige

Book Excerpt of the Week

From: "The Boss's Survival Guide" by Rosner, Halcrow & Lavin (McGraw Hill, 2001)

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