The sandwich CEOs?

I have been pondering on the lot of the CEO (and the rest of the management team) in many organisations. It’s pretty challenging as they get assailed by change on all sides by change, whilst their organisations become more disfunctional and unmanageable. They frantically pull on levers that don’t really work anymore, whilst trying to get the caboodle to do tricks it’s not made to do, like innovate, be agile, attract the talent and keep relevant.

The I saw this article “Why do so many middle-aged men feel so lost” and thought it might be relevant (because, let’s face it, we’re talking mostly about middle-aged, middle-class white men here). Well, it’s not actually about business, it’s about their private lives: but maybe there’s more similarity than difference.

It talks about the ‘sandwich generation’ in their mid-40 and 50’s, stuck between the baby boomers and the digital natives. It sums up their situation as follows:

“Men currently in their midyears are caught between their traditional silent, strong and austere fathers who went to work and provided for their families, and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these two very different ways of life and masculine culture they should follow.”

Well, doesn’t that parallel their situation in the board-room as well? They don’t know whether to continue to work the machine harder, driving for efficiency and scale at the expense of everything else, or to get all soft-and-fluffy people-focused like the tech whizz-kids and Tony Hsieh at Zappos. They don’t know whether they should be insisting on stand up meeting and stopping the tea and biscuits, or putting in a snack bar surrounded by giant bean bags and chill-out pods.

The article explains that not only do these men find themselves confused and conflicted, they often become surplus to requirements as their wives realise they don’t need them in today’s world. To make matters worse, it seems these men are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the situation, having had it all their own way for so long. The behaviours that have been second nature in the past are now the cause of their malaise and they are struggling to change. Whereas women adapt and support each other and go on to be stronger.

Today’s CEO must feel a similar pressure. Is he (because it will be a he) about to made surplus to requirements? He can already see that the automatic behaviours of the past are losing their potency and efficacy as the growing cohort of millennial just don’t play that game. Is he able to change? Who has he got to help him? (hint: those behaviours don’t include mutuality and support). Does he stick with what he has always done, even though he can see it’s not working? Or does he make the leap of faith and change the whole business (assuming he even believes he can make it happen)?

We sometimes see these people at the top as the blockage, the obstruction to change, but perhaps they’re just the meat in the sandwich. And they’re about to get eaten. Instead of being censorious, we should use some empathy to understand their position. Then, maybe, we can help them find a way out.


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