The Discomfort of the CEO


My father used to have a saying in our family:

If Momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy!

and this little phrase helped me avoid getting deeper into trouble as a kid, and also sheds some light on organizational behaviour and business as well.

For the past 35 years I have had the good fortune to work with some very interesting challenges and a very interesting group of people, CEOs and senior leadership teams as they take on the tasks of improving their businesses.  Sometimes the challenge was external, as when the US Government broke up Ma Bell in 1984 and the resulting 7 Regional Operating Companies (Baby Bells) had to suddenly deal with competition from alternative carriers.

Sometimes the challenges were internally induced, as when the new management team at General Public Utilities Nuclear had to clean up and restart the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant.  Or when Ford decided to convert its worst performing manufacturing plant, Halewood, into a new Jaguar production facility. Or when Lycoming Engines had to rebuild their business after a major product quality defect almost sent it into bankruptcy.

Sometimes the challenges were in response to a business opportunity, such as how to significantly ramp up production of armoured vehicles during the Gulf War to better protect soldiers from IED (Improvised Explosive Devices, aka terrorist land mines) right after Hurricane Katrina devastated a manufacturing facility.

All fascinating, interesting and definitely challenging assignments.  As a result of these and other business change challenges, I have come away with some interesting observations about leaders and change.

Change is one of the most talked about subjects in business (a Google search turned up 5.5 Billion hits), and one of the hardest to deliver.  I’ve seen what were supposed to be easy changes fail miserably and result in the firing of the CEO. And I’ve also seen extremely complex change programs succeed and transform a mediocre company into a world-class quality leader.

So, I have developed a rule of thumb about CEOs and “Change”.  It goes like this:

The greater the pain and discomfort of the CEO, the higher the probability of successful change!

In other words, after all these years I can pretty much tell, 15 minutes into a conversation with a CEO, the likely success of his/her change agenda.  Too often people talk about change, some every give eloquent presentations, others even rant, but unless there is a seriously high level of discomfort in the CEO, not much will change.  But when the inner pain and discomfort of the CEO gets high enough, then I tend to wager on a successful outcome.

Here’s how I describe it to my clients:

Leadership “Resolve”

What’s your level of resolve concerning change in your organisation?  What’s your level of resolve?  What triggers your “burning platform” moment?

I have a feeling that Discomfort, Resolve and Commitment are linked together.  My advice to most CEOs is; “Get committed and get your courage up, or stop talking about change!”

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to The Discomfort of the CEO

  1. Raunak says:

    now that explains why most companies ONLY talk about change. thanks for an eye opening perspective! I think leaders would do themselves a favor by realizing that bringing about change in a comfortable environment is so much easier than when circumstances force it upon them.


  2. Steve Borek says:

    I love that diagram. Can I get your permission to use it?

    Why do clients call us when they’re at the end of their rope? Is it human nature?

    Leaders need to listen to their inner voice. When they sense something is “off,” that’s the time to address the situation.

    In my experience, the best leaders have the best emotional intelligence.


  3. Great perspective, John. I’m going to remember that one next time I’m sitting with a CEO. if he’s not squirming around on his seat with discomfort, I’ll make my apologies and leave.


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