Vanity Projects

On change, beware a CEO looking to make their mark. That project will be likely undone by the next CEO. Look for change that is sustainable.

Si monumentum requiris circumspice

On Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren

Every CEO wants to make a difference. Some want to make a big mark on their organisations during their tenure. That inevitably leads to consideration of some defining transformation, a culture change program, a new building, a technology change, a new product range, an acquisition or all of the above.

The Vanity Project

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Reinhold Niebuhr

CEO tenures are now short. Nobody has a lifetime at the top anymore. A competitive market for talent, the pressures of the role and changing business circumstances ensure that. As passionate as the CEO is about change doing something because one person wants or needs it to mark their tenure is an extraordinary act of egotism. Most people’s lives are not recorded in marble. That includes most CEOs.

When someone invites you to lead the change on a CEO’s vanity project it can be intoxicatingly attractive – status, profile, resources, a spot in history, and more. What is not advertised is the frustrations. There will be people who wait out the CEO. The people who missed the CEO role and the candidates for next CEO may well have other agendas. The success of the project will likely be driven by and shape the organisation’s opinion of the CEO.

This is dangerous territory. Remember, at some point, the CEO will tire of you asking for help to push the change through. Ego projects are meant to make the CEO feel good and you will be judged on that measure, whether explicitly or not.

Danger is fine. What frustrates most of all is seeing the work not achieve completion or be completely undone because a CEO’s enthusiasms mean that the change skipped through the need for wide buy-in. CEOs like to encourage these projects to go hard with their backing and breakthrough to make change. Sadly there is only so much you can break and still have a functional change. The more a project is identified with a CEO the more likely it ends with that CEO’s tenure.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Byssshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Sustainable Change

Great change projects are designed to be self-sustaining. They don’t need to be pushed by a CEO barking orders. They are designed with an eye to the medium term needs of the organisation. They engage people in a vision that is shared.

If you take on a vanity project, your challenge is to frustrate the vanity. You will need to work to make it sustainable by building the connection to organisational purpose, aligning with customers, managers and employees, seeking wider support and bottom up engagement, understanding the needs and eventually changing the project to suit the organisation’s needs and not a CEO’s ego.

Your challenge will be to deliver a change for a community and not a corner office. Change looks best in the hands of others, not in the pages of a memoir.

My heart must rally to my wit

And rout the specter of alarm

Theodore Roethke, Against Disaster

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