Tony Hayward: The Indefensible CEO

To write a blog titled, “In Defense of BP CEO Tony Hayward” takes some guts. Steve Tobiak is a prolific and influential blogger for Bnet.com on topics of leadership and management and wrote this entry last week as a dissenting voice in the call for Hayward’s head.  While I truly appreciate Tobiak’s ongoing effort in his blog to challenge the status quo, I think in this case, he doesn’t have much of a case to stand on.

The problem is, if you are the CEO of BP, you have to be accountable. No different than Rick Waggoner for GM, Hayward is directly or indirectly responsible for the continued culture of BP which clearly focuses more on production and efficiency than it does on responsibility. I also have the advantage of having met with the leadership of BP a few years ago when a friend and colleague was a senior manager there. The results of the Gulf Oil spill, and the actions that have been taken since then, are a direct result of the culture that BP has created. And like it or not, Tony Hayward is the keeper of the culture.

Tobiak argues that one of the primary issues is that Hayward finds himself in “the mother of all no-win situations.” This is clearly true. With recent reports that the gulf oil spill is producing exponentially more oil per day into the waters than was previously stated, there is hardly a scenario where BP “wins.” But to say that Hayward “finds himself in…” is to imply that he was a passive player.  I would buy this if there were no evidence that BP knew or should have suspected that disaster was likely on the horizon, but that is not the case. As we have heard over the last few weeks, there were many opportunities to turn the situation around, none of which was taken by BP.

Oil Slick  Amongst other arguments, Tobiak also presents Hayward as a working-class kind of guy who “worked his tail off to get where he is.”  Ok. He worked hard to get to CEO, but I’m stuck with a bit of “So, what?” If you are the leader of the organization, you are expected to work hard and it is likely you worked hard to get to your current position. This defense-by-work-ethic doesn’t work. Try that defense on the shores of Louisiana and I think you’ll see it is not compelling.

The point here is that leaders have to take accountability for not only their personal actions but for the actions of the culture they maintain. One of the most notable observations I made when I had a chance to meet the leaders of BP was that they were almost cult-like in their obsession with efficiency while at the same time being obsessed with safety issues in the office. They had instituted a ton of safety measures after the Texas disaster, but most were cosmetic. This is a company, and a CEO, with ego of immense proportions.

So, Steve, as much as I enjoy your blog and the fact that you are not afraid to take on the conventional wisdom, I have to say you missed it this time. Tony Hayward has, over the weeks, had many opportunities to show the true values and principles of a strong leader. Yes, he is faced with a challenge of magnitude that few leaders will have to face, but that doesn’t excuse his role in the mess.  With the power and influence comes the responsibility and I’m afraid that responsibility is going to be Hayward’s to bear. 

When Best Practices May Not Be Best

For a long time I've been bothered by the fact that many leaders with whom I come in contact are obsessed with identifying and replicating "Best Practices." This has been more of an intuitive thought rather than a practical one as I haven't really been able to say clearly why this bothers me. However, re-reading Seth Godin's outstanding book "Tribes
," it occurred to my why "Best Practice Sharing" can create a hidden problem. Hear me out and see what you think.

When leaders start focusing on identifying best practices, they are by definition identifying what has worked in the past. Too often, they examine the process…the manner in which something was done…and then try to work out how they can replicate the process in their own business or context. One client I worked with recently, for example, was determined to bring case studies into the corporate workshop in order to see if there were ways of applying the solutions in the cases to her own company.

Here's my problem. Almost every leader that has tried, for example, to take Jack Welch's approach at GE and replicate it in their own company has found it difficult if not impossible to do. This is because Welch's approach was not just about a process. It was about a mindset, a culture, and a specific moment in time when these changes could be made. We know in science that to replicate an experiment, all of the conditions have to be the same.  I suspect this principle is true as well when it comes to best practices.

I suggest that leaders need to go a step or two further. We should study more thoroughly the "Success Practice" that went into making the process work rather than the "Best Practice" of the process itself. We should see what it took to create the vision around the solution, and how the leader went about testing his or her ideas and gaining support. We should see what it took to bring about the necessary change and worry less about the step-by-step instructions for imitation.

True leaders are always surveying the landscape for new ideas and approaches. A good historian can document a process, but a leader has to understand the forces behind the actions. That is where the "Success Factors" can be found.