CEO Coaching: This Dog Don’t Hunt!

I recently read Robert Gates’ book, “Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World,” and was struck by his section on Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been a quagmire for decades — never really a country, just warring tribes. The Soviets sent more than 1 million soldiers there, lost 13,000 and suffered injuries in another 35,000. The Afghans lost upward of 1 million lives, and 5 million became refugees in other countries. As Gates points out, many believe that the incursion into Afghanistan contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Although the United States arguably achieved some initial success, a lack of focus, changing resource levels and an adept enemy have proved too much to overcome after 20 years of fighting.   

At what point do you say, “This dog don’t hunt!” and retreat? 

I have no military expertise, but the question is germane to business on many levels. Whether it’s a product line, a geographic region or your business model, when do you reasonably say, “This isn’t going to work”?

In business, like in Afghanistan or Vietnam, it’s not rational thought that keeps the fight going beyond reasonable investments — it’s emotion. Whether you’re the president of the United States or a CEO, declaring failure and moving on is awfully hard. Even in private companies, I’ve seen owners who’d rather risk the family’s hard-earned wealth than bear the shame of moving on. 

One characteristic of successful people is their ability to fail. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If it’s a good mantra for Edison on a particular experiment, why isn’t it good for divisions, products or people in a company?

I know that I hung on to people and business units in my career that I should’ve walked away from. I never once said, “Darn, I cut the cord too quickly on that one!” Not once!

Why is it that Warren Buffett can frequently call out his mistakes and still prosper? I suspect he’s always had not only the self-confidence but also the humility and strength to say, “I was wrong!”

As businesspeople, we aren’t usually endangering lives like a military leader or president does. We are, however, endangering capital, careers and long-term viability when we refuse to make the hard calls because we’re controlled by emotion rather than rational thought. 

Which tough decisions are you avoiding right now?

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  • Louis Cicio

    4:19 pm October 9, 2020

    While it’s always a balance to weigh the variables, I believe that being able to say, “I never once cut the cord too quickly” tells me that you have successful managed the situation because people and careers are usually one of the variables. If that human variable caused you the delay, then that emotional pause will pay dividends with your existing and future employees. I don’t advocate delaying or not making the tough decisions, though devote the emotional pause and some capital to a well designed plan and provide employees a transition you would appreciate…and then eliminate that loss making division as fast as possible.