With a Maverick CEO Behind the Wheel, HR Rides Shotgun

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May 7, 2020

Companies will always embrace visionary leaders that challenge the status quo. Maverick CEOs can create companies others can’t even imagine. Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his ouster by the board to create a trillion-dollar giant. Reed Hastings navigated Netflix through tough competitive challenges and changed the entire media industry. Jeff Bezos’ envisioned and created  Amazon—a company with an immense breadth and depth the likes of which no one has ever seen before.

At the other end of the spectrum, some dominant visionaries have created havoc. Striving to make their vision a reality, some earn the label of jerk.  Travis Kalanick’s notoriously bad behavior when he was CEO of Uber caused one board member to announce that they should never hire another brainy jerk. Some pioneers step outside boundaries so badly they implode the enterprise they help build. Theranos’ founder, Elizabeth Holmes, lied about the company’s so-called revolutionary blood-testing technology. Theranos, which once had a market capitalization of $9 billion, withered to nothing.

Why do some visionary leaders create value while others generate pandemonium? To understand, we talked to senior executives, board members, and staff and discussed the realities of working with high-energy, maverick leaders. We learned that board members, investors, executives, and staff all play a role in surviving and thriving with a maverick CEO. But HR can play a special role.

HR rides shotgun

The top HR job can be challenging, no matter who is CEO, and it is even tougher with a firebrand at the helm. If you have a visionary leader or obstreperous Brainiac in charge, you have two additional HR responsibilities– mind the gaps and set the stage for constructive dialog.

One of the most important functions of HR leadership is supplementing the gaps in the maverick CEO’s managerial capability. Some dominant visionaries start their company in their teens or early twenties with an extremely innovative idea and little or no business knowledge or leadership experience. Larry Page at Google and Steve Jobs were brainy youngsters when they started their companies. Page’s brilliance was nicely complemented by bringing onboard Eric Schmidt’s business savvy and experience. Adding retail experience to Apple’s board helped Steve Jobs when he created the Apple Store. Whether the founder is young and inexperienced like those two or their career path has not given them exposure to key functions, HR can provide valuable guidance to the CEO and the executive team on how to supplement their leadership toolbox or find a senior executive that can join and balance out the leadership role like Schmidt did at Google.

Sometimes the smartest person in the room needs someone to stop them from doing something dumb. Challenging a person who’s on a mission to change the world or upset an entire industry is a tricky thing to do. Power affects everyone, including a visionary CEO; over time, they can become less risk-aware, fail to see things from other people’s points of view.

When major conflicts arise, one-on-one discussions are almost always more productive than open discussion. Discussions of sensitive issues in an open forum can threaten the visionary and make them defensive. You need to ensure there is a culture and a process where coaching and private conversations are valued and used. A senior person at a tech company who dealt with a world-class domineering change maker (and sometimes jerk) told us that off-line conversations were the only way he was able to get the CEO to change his mind on many contentious issues. And it is worth noting that Steve Jobs, a famously confident and single-minded leader, actively reached out to select people to get advice and work through tough issues.

Know your driver

To maintain constructive conversations and help keep the lines of communication open, there are several behavioral characteristics that we recommend you evaluate to understand and help the inspired, dominant leader you have behind the wheel. Here are four important aspects to consider.

  1. Brainiac quotient: All dominant visionaries are brainy but not in the same way. Some are technology whiz kids like Page and Musk; others, like Jeff Bezos, are on the top end of the brain scale at designing disruptive business models. It is essential that you know what type of genius you are dealing with.
  2. Propensity to break rules: All dominant visionaries are rule-breakers, but some are prone to going to extremes. That is a red flag and requires guidelines on what is out of bounds, and possibly processes to track and manage what gets broken. Travis Kalanick is the poster child in this category. His team did not act early enough to curtail his counterproductive rule-breaking behaviors.
  3. Tendency to be a jerk: There is a spectrum of jerkiness. Obstreperous behavior once in a while is not uncommon and probably deserves little concern. Rampant jerkiness is a red flag. It is not the kiss of death, but it complicates and possibly compromises the pathfinder’s ability to build collaborative teams and establish partnerships to drive the enterprise.
  4. Ferocity: Being a tough taskmaster is the norm for a fire-breathing CEO—changing the world requires a highly energized approach to everything. But too much toughness can create a leader who is seen as a  monster and a culture where aggressive behavior is expected from everyone all the time. Left unattended, that leads to the feral behaviors seen at Uber and other companies where rules were for wusses—a formula for destroying value. Properly managed toughness can be an asset. Jeff Bezos’ high-pressure environment at Amazon has contributed to spectacular growth and nonstop innovation. But it is a delicate balance—some employees are comfortable with the intensity while others find the environment corrosive. You need to gauge the ferocity of your dominant visionary and know what turns them into a tyrant. That will be good for the CEO and for the people who have to deal with them.

Creating success

Every HR leader should set aside time to evaluate how well they help create and sustain value. Following are key questions you should ask yourself and the HR team:

  • Are we as an executive team supporting the CEO to make and execute bold moves? How can we do better?
  • Is the executive team membership adequate to support the CEO’s big bets? Is there sufficient diversity and processes in place to create constructive conversations?
  • Do we have a good handle on the CEO’s management strengths and weaknesses?
  • Does the CEO know how to make good use of the executive team?

The board, investors, executives, and staff play different roles in helping a firebrand CEO achieve the vision and sustaining the value created. HR leaders are not just along for the ride. They are an essential part of the solution—you balance the team, spark the vital conversations, and help keep the team on the road to success.