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Should modesty be rewarded?

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By Tony Samson

IS MODESTY considered a corporate virtue?

When was the last time a CEO proclaimed he was merely a shepherd tending to his sheep? Does he even look for the wayward sheep? Why is he treated as a VIP, where he does not need to line up for the buffet because someone will serve him food at his presidential table? (Always, with too much carbo.) Does he propose to sell the corporate jet and just fly commercial — and only economy, please?

In a compensation system that rewards an individual’s contribution and “value added,” the scramble for credit for any success in a corporation can be unseemly. A profitable product, a boost in productivity, or the winning of an award as “best managed company” cannot be lacking in credit grabbers, no matter how tenuous the basis — we were drinking wine when I mentioned to her, “why don’t you launch a successful new product?” Fact-checking is considered in bad taste — were you truly just drinking wine?

Companies talk of transparency, fair handling of suppliers (You get paid after we get paid), nurturing of employees (We are willing to listen), good investor relations (We have colorful charts that don’t use red ink), and corporate philanthropy.

But what about modesty?

The annual stockholders’ meeting turns into a bragging rite for hyping achievements. Breakthroughs, cutting edge, new frontiers, and market dominance are part of the vocabulary. Bashing competition with pie charts show what small slices they are left to eat.

Modesty seems to have no place in corporate PR. Immodesty in a corporation is considered normal. A whole communications department is tasked to make chest-thumping, rather than chest-beating, a way of life. (What triumphs do we trumpet today?)

Does modesty have a place in the workplace?

When launching a new service, turn down the hype. This is a service you may not need, dear customers, but it’s a profitable one for us. You may find some fault with it as we have not yet ironed out all the operational kinks, but the invitations for this launch have already been sent out. We welcome feedback from you if this thing blows up in your face and renders you with imperfect vision.

Admit mistakes. Not all corporate missteps should be projected as intentional strategy and explained away as pilot projects from which lessons were learned for a new product launch. We upgraded the software and downgraded the service.

The annual report does not have to be about spectacular achievements. It is appropriate to acknowledge missed goals or projects that did not pan out as expected. We threw away billions in a bad acquisition which our minority stockholders warned us about. You can even point to the success of your competitors in some areas, without necessarily giving out their names. (They can practice their own modesty.)

A corporate chief who moves among his employees with humility is rare. His entrance is announced with fanfare as he is surrounded by an entourage to keep the peasants away. Those he visits are expected to drop what they’re doing to symbolically wave palms at the passing of this messiah. Does he even eat at the employees’ canteen?

It is not unusual for a CEO to have an image consultant organize the personality hype. This may include discreetly lobbying for awards, getting time in lifestyle talk shows, maybe a feature in a glossy online magazine about the well-rounded personality. This guy writes haikus in Japanese for relaxation and even his bonsais are bigger.

Highlighting success is ingrained in the corporate culture. Modesty is only a mask — I have good people in place (I hired all of them). Lives there a CEO who will confess he should step down and turn the reins of the company to someone younger? (He’ll be ready in 10 years.)

Woody Allen in an interview after his wildly successful “Midnight in Paris” describes his role as director. “The key is in the casting. Once the actors are in place, I just let them do what they want and then I take the credit.”

Humility all too often eludes the corporate CEO. Modesty is somehow forced on him, not when he’s on the pedestal smelling the incense, but afterwards. By then, modesty comes from looking back at past mistakes…and humble achievements.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda

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