As a result of my extensive experience as a Metrics and Reporting Specialist I’ve come to understand or at least seriously question something about CEO’s. I would discuss this confusion with friends and perhaps associates yet I had never given it a name. I’m now calling it “The CEO Conundrum”. This may come as a surprise or even be shocking once I get into it and perhaps even irritate those in executive positions yet once I explain how it is I eventually came to this awareness it will be clear that I’m correct in what I’m saying at least from what I’ve experienced. Much of this comes from the fact that the higher you go up the corporate ladder the more accountable you are to multitude of various functions of the company with each level having some element of Direct Reports taking care of details at that level which the leader of that level cannot personally keep in touch with and therefore depends on those various direct reports to attend to those details.
How This Conundrum Unfolded
United Airlines Cargo was my first corporate job to support a monthly book for cargo service performance which eventually evolved into me creating the first weekly report in an effort to get the reporting closer to when the actual performance had occurred. Monthly and quarterly reports ensued. I was eventually tasked to build a reduced version of these metrics as guided by my manager. Other metrics from the division were added such as some financials. This was to be included in a distribution package that was used for meetings with the C-Suite. As I became more involved with reporting on the various levels of the division and then to the company at large, the higher up they went, the simpler they got. None of the upper level metrics included a lot of data. They had to be more simply expressed as meeting or not meeting a target and nothing else. This is where I came up with the phrase “Look and Go” in relation to these upper management metrics realizing if the person had to spend time analyzing what it said it was either ignored or rejected flat out. My first exposure to “metrics manipulation” happened here. The director of cargo would at times come to me with “recalculations” of the goals that were also used in the C-Suite report in order to assist them in meeting their goals so as to not be called out (aka embarrassed) for any lackluster performance in these round table meetings of all of the divisions of the company. Although the data reported was always very accurate, these “recalculations” were at times very creative as it was an attempt to avoid the embarrassment with peers. One in particular was where he asked me to remove the goal lines in the C-Suite version. I had to submit them to someone who aggregated them all into a single package. An hour later I received a call saying that the Senior VP who reported to the CEO noticed they were gone and requested them to be immediately reinstated. The director happened to pass by just as I got off of the phone and when I informed him of it his response rhymed with yuck.
My next Metrics and Reporting role was at Allstate Insurance in their application development division with the initial task of rebuilding a massive quarterly division report containing a lot of different metrics from financial to people to various ITIL based metrics. Upon completion the next task was to develop weekly and monthly reporting for the department. As I worked with the various departmental stakeholders I again noticed that these contained not just more metrics but also more detail than the executive quarterly report. I also worked on a variety of other reporting that depending on the audience would depend on the detail of the results.
The reports I created at my next role at Caremark were very similar to the Allstate metrics. I designed and created metrics that reported the same pattern of detail at the department level, less at the Director level and even more consolidated for the Vice President.
My role at AbbVie is where I really got to experience the dynamics of not just the increasing consolidation of the reporting but the decisions behind it. I was the Management Review Metrics Specialist with full responsibility of creating the metrics for my department and also merging various PowerPoint files from the other departments for three levels of reporting. Level 1 was the monthly VP report and each Director had a say in what and how much data was included for their sections of the report. It was the quarterly meetings of the next level with the Senior VP of the division where I really got to see the filtering effect because there would be comments on what to remove or not include because the Senior VP was very astute and known for asking penetrating questions expecting that if this question was evident to them then it should be evident to you and therefore you should have an answer for it. If you didn’t have it then an Action Item was assigned to that person for later response. No one wanted to be on the receiving end of that so this filtering was meant to attenuate it. That didn’t totally prevent it from happening but at least reduced it to a more manageable level. This happened to an even greater degree for the quarterly version that would be used to present performance of the division to the CEO. The VP was responsible for reporting to the CEO and would attend the pre-reviews making various cuts and commentaries about what to include or remove or levels of detail to not go into. It’s imperative that I make this totally clear that at no time was any serious information ever withheld from these meetings. If something truly bad occurred it would be reported. What was happening is better referred to as “smoothing out the rough edges” which resulted with “prettier pictures”.
The CEO Conundrum Arises
By this time I had gained extensive experience with Metrics and Reporting from the “worker bees” to the C-Suite and all levels in between. I had experienced not just the increasing consolidation but the “recalculations” in order to present a more favorable view of metrics that might not be performing as well. Some of this was understandable because some CEO’s were notorious for berating these people when performance wasn’t meeting expectations. Rule by Terror is sometimes their Modus Operandi to ensure the highest level of divisional performance. One VP said, “You never want to experience not meeting goal” in reference to the CEO. Another intriguing element of dealing with metrics reporting to CEO’s is what I call “The Royalty Effect”. Yes the CEO is the absolute top of the company’s hierarchy and deserves loads of respect due to the massive amount of responsibility yet I have seen many people react to them as if they were in the presence of a King or Queen. This of course then affects how they discuss any reporting because you then must be able to answer any and all questions posed to you during your metrics presentation when you’re in the presence of such “royalty”. This is what drives some of the “hiding” of the details so that questions are not posed to which answers may not be immediately available resulting in sort of “omnipotent” perspective within that metrics presentation. Certain details could be identified as being too much in that they could drive too many questions or ensuing discussions. Due to the experiences of these various methodologies of how executives can react to the performance being reported the result was to “pretty up the pictures” as a method to avoid these various forms of unwanted confrontation and/or inquisition.
This then eventually begs the question of just what do CEO’s really know about their companies at large? It’s impossible for them to consistently know any real depth of information because they are simply in charge of overseeing too many things which then puts the responsibility upon the varying level of direct reports all of which can “pretty up” the reporting avoiding the sometimes very intense confrontations. To reiterate, I am not in any way saying the data used is an outright lie as it never was. I can declaratively say that because the majority of the time I was the one responsible for pulling the data from the system and preparing it for use in the various reports. Yet it could be just moved a little bit this way or a little bit that way which then shifts the results to better align with their targets which then better align with the results. I was never asked to manipulate the results and wouldn’t if requested because it then would all come back to haunt me as the person responsible for the assembly and ensuing reporting quality. The one thing you never want to happen in reporting is to be wrong especially at the executive level because important decisions can be made from those results. This is referred to as “Being Bulletproof” and an imperative methodology to all forms of metrics and reporting. There have been some times where the data in the database was incorrect and I was asked to manually correct it. This is a problem if not corrected in the database because if someone runs the same query and gets different results no matter how small, it comes back to the report assembler. This is why my number one rule is “The Data is The Data” and I refuse to change any data post extraction. The few times I was told to do so I required a CYA email trail for just that reason. Whenever I listen or read comments by CEO’s I always have this in the back of my mind. The degree to which that person really knows about the depth and breadth of their company cannot be ascertained without delving into what I call The Communication Pathway. Anytime a CEO delivers any deep depth of details publically I greatly suspect that they’ve been coached. I have no idea how pervasive this is yet I’ve been in 5 companies in 4 different industries, airline cargo (logistics), insurance (application development), pharma (quality), and government contracts and have seen this happen to some degree in all of them so extrapolation should still be somewhat reliable.
In conclusion, The CEO Conundrum is an element of C-Suite Reporting that exists regardless of any awareness thereof because it will naturally arise from any combination of various mixtures of the following:
- “Rule by Terror”
- “The Royalty Effect”
- Company Politics
- Not wanting to be questioned on results or having any kind of in depth conversation about the reported results
- Other elements I may not have been privy to
This then results in “prettying up” the metrics presentation which inevitably will leave out the greater details of the company’s performance. Think about this if you are involved with any level of reporting in a company or listen to a CEO publicly discuss the company and understand that to some element this is going to exist regardless of any efforts otherwise because this effect is at the core of C-Suite Metrics and Reporting.