Leadership and career

Snakes in the C-Suite

By November 18, 2015 No Comments

By: Linda Henman

A recent edition of People reported that the Discovery Channel had filmed adventurer Paul Rosolie being eaten alive by a giant anaconda.  But the magazine went to press too soon; it didn’t happen.

With sterling intentions, Rosolie donned a high-tech carbon fiber suit with breathing and communications systems to allow him to tangle with the planet’s most effective predator. With the cameras rolling, Rosolie entered the fray with a commitment to success, but he couldn’t go through with it. The snake did the predictable: it attempted to crush the life out of Rosolie and swallow him. Everyone knew this would happen, but apparently Rosolie didn’t realize how much he’d hate it.

Metaphorically speaking, the same thing happened to three of my clients this year. The CEOs desperately wanted the snakes in their organizations to succeed, but the CEOs underestimated the level of serpent behavior they’d have to bear. Each leader, for entirely different reasons, had irrefutable evidence that a snake dwelt in his executive suite, and each, for the same reason, endured as much of the soul-crushing experience that he could before he ultimately called an end to it all.

What reason explains any leader tolerating reptilian behavior on his team? Results blinded them to reality.

What happened?

  1. Several years ago, I spotted narcissistic tendencies in one of the snakes. He consistently and continually defaulted to the “it’s all about me” position. He broke rules because he didn’t consider himself bound by them, and in all fairness, he did deliver impressive results—or so his boss thought. As it turns out, he also incurred millions of dollars of debt and loss for the company.
  2. Another executive wreaked so much havoc in the organization that other members of the team couldn’t succeed. Where he went, trouble followed. Each of my CEO clients has a different breaking point, but in this case, when the CEO realized that the snake blocked the success of others, he knew he had to act.
  3. The third snake was a wrecker too. He could accomplish dramatic things, but not without a great deal of drama. His teammates threatened mutiny before the snake finally trapped himself in an ethics violation that led to his firing.

These three people entered the organization as rising stars and corporate saviors, only to abuse the trust of colleagues and supervisors, leaving the workplace in shambles. Now we consider them snakes, but we didn’t initially.

The ability of clever snakes to hide their true nature makes spotting them difficult. They creep into the organization and quickly burrow in undetected, often camouflaged by chaos. Leaders who learn to identify the snakes, anticipate the destruction they will cause and avoid hiring them avoid Rosolie’s embarrassing surprise that snakes really can be unpleasant creatures.


linda henmanDr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century. Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations. She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat , The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works. Dr. Henman can be reached at linda@henmanperformancegroup.com

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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