Article: Why big fierce executives are rare

Strategic HR

Why big fierce executives are rare

Corporations, like jungles, have a limited number of ecological spaces that can support executives near the top of the pecking order. Who are these forbidding niche monopolizers and how can HR deal with them?
Why big fierce executives are rare

"I'm getting tired of your meddling. This town ain't big enough for the both of us and I'm going to give you 24 hours to get out. If I see you in Carabinas by this time tomorrow, it's you or me!" 1

Warnings of the kind given by Nick Grindell to Tim Barrett started making sense at another level to me once I entered the corporate arena. Reading 'Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare' added the parallel of deep tropical forests to towns in the Wild West and organizational wrestling rings. Colinvaux drew a humorous parallel between professionals and predators. "Likening an animal’s niche to a human profession makes this idea of limits to number very clear. Let us take the profession of professing. There can only be as many professors in any city as there are teaching and scholarship jobs for professors to do. If the local university turns out more research scholars than there are professing jobs, then some of these hopeful young people will not be able to accept the scholar's tenure, however cum laude their degrees. They will have to emigrate, or take to honest work to make a living... The requirement for a definite niche implies a limit to the size of the population because the numbers of the animal or plant are set by the opportunities for carrying on life in that niche." 2

Competition to fill the apex niches (in lawless towns, forests and corporations) can be fierce to the point of turning fatal. The greater the rewards at stake and the more punitive the penalties for failing, the deadlier the contests. Corporates are far from being rational, ordered aggregates where one 'homo economicus' deals with another. "…[O]rganisations are seldom uniform undertakings of rational, hierarchical co-ordination and action… and managers, whether we like it or not, are politicians… Understood as the process of mediating alternative views, management is politics… [and] managers are engaged in a ceaseless process of dealing with these differences, of positioning their own interests in relation to those of others..." 3

The fact that Big Fierce Executives (BFEs) are rare doesn’t make life any easier for HR. Quite the contrary: their rarity is proportionate to their lethality in dealing with competitors and constrictors. In order to cope with BFEs requires HR to analyze their taxonomy in greater detail. Three distinct BFE species occupy each corporate territory. It is as if the same forest area is lorded over by a tiger on the ground, an eagle in the air and a crocodile in the water. Having twisted and exhausted the limits of my knowledge of bio-spheres, let me try making things clearer (or, at least, more human) by shifting analogies from jungles to medieval courts where, under the king, there was usually a single baron and one courtier who towered over others. Antony Jay memorably describes the tension between baron (line) and courtier (staff) roles in companies. "The baron thinks the courtiers are remote, airy-fairy, smart-alecks who ought to spend a few weeks at the sharp end just to learn what it's really all about, the courtier thinks the barons are dim, out-of-date unsystematic, unimaginative cowboys who can’t see beyond their nose. All too often they can both prove it."4  We shall add a magus to Jay’s 'dramatis personae'. Those who think magicians didn’t exist in medieval courts are encouraged to read about the gruesome career of Eliseus Bomelius. 5

This column deals with BFEs at levels just below the CEO’s in standalone companies. Precisely the same dynamics operate in conglomerates or MNCs with business unit CEOs assuming the baronial roles and corporate (usually functional) chief officers being the courtiers. The drama we are about to describe will obviously not unfold when a single individual grabs all the BFE niches. Whether consciously or not, such a person will be on a collision course with the company / group head. Exciting as the denouement might be, it cannot be part of this column and must await one yet to be written. 

The Powerful PatroMax

The Patronus Maximus (or PatroMax, as nicknamed in an earlier column)6  is the true lord / lady of that corner of the corporate jungle. S/he may let our other two BFE types alone but they cannot cross paths without peril. 

One prerequisite for occupying this top-tiger niche is to be considered above average on the job – at least for the duration in question. It may transpire later that PatroMax power had suborned control functions into reporting performance more favourably than was deserved. Even more damagingly, the results may have been delivered at the expense of and by liquidating human and other assets essential for the organization’s long-term health. All that, however, is a future reckoning.

Bar the few PatroMaxes who can display a charismatic aura to rally people (even outside their authority-sphere) to their banners, the power of these BFEs lies in the favours they can do or the harm they can cause to those they wish to influence. The modus operandi is far from new and Kautilya captured it ages ago as "sama, dana, bheda and danda (i.e. adopting a conciliatory attitude, placating with rewards and gifts, sowing dissension among enemies and using force)... The weak shall be controlled by sama [conciliation] and dana [placating with gifts], and the strong by bheda [sowing dissension] and danda [force]."7  If the potential for the last component (i.e. danda) is significantly impaired, however, whether by external constraints or internal scruples, the PatroMax is on notice for replacement by a competitor. In this direction, and contrary to all cheek-turning gospels, a measure of vindictiveness goes a long way in keeping competitor predators from snapping too closely at the alpha-tiger’s heels.8

'The Dogs of (Office) War' has described the PatroMax in fair detail.9  Hence, we shall devote more column-centimetres here to the other two BFE-types.

The Omniscient OptoMax

The prototype for OptoMax is all-seeing "Argus, the watchman with a hundred eyes".10  The reason OptoMax exists is not just because the CEO cannot be in all places at once. Even if s/he were, people would be too guarded to reveal their true views or feelings. Providing a conduit to the CEO, especially from a remote unit, requires that the CEO as well as key information sources at the unit trust the OptoMax. Till this trust is earned, s/he is just one more dispensable informer. Trust in hand, OptoMax is virtually unassailable.

The OptoMax has to deliver on five Cs to be truly effective. Coverage is the first of these. Even the OptoMax cannot personally be present at all key information-conduit crosses. Hence, a unit HR head, with a supporting team of business-partnering, service-providing and people-sensitive HR practitioners is often a natural choice to play the OptoMax role. Since the true indicators of organizational health or malaise are deeply hidden in a vast amount of general-purpose verbiage and, once an OptoMax is identified s/he is sure to be inundated by doctored information, the OptoMax also needs to be a Cryptanalyst. Even decrypted information-bits in isolation, however, mean little till a set of them is Connected, to reveal Gestalts and trends that are meaningful to decision-makers. Communicating these to the CEO is also an art. The frequency, medium and intermediation for such communication depends on the CEO’s style and the OptoMax must adjust accordingly. Conveying back what the CEO wants (or doesn’t) without waiting for the formality and effort of a full-scale presentation or pilot is also a very useful OptoMax contribution to making operations more responsive while saving wasted effort, heartburn and delay. In fact, this is what makes the OptoMax valuable to peers and opens doors to the highest councils of that unit. 

As with the PatroMax, a dark characteristic from the Faustian Triad makes the cut – literally – for the OptoMax. This consists in knowing when to cut the cord with one CEO and latch on to the next prospect, thus requiring a sixth sense honed to the seventh degree.11  

The Magical MagusMax

Unlike the ubiquitous uber-baron and uber-courtier that we have encountered, plenty of monarchs, whether they run courts or corporates, seem able to get along very well without a powerful magician in attendance. In a business organization, the MagusMax is the repository of the core competence that gives the company its competitive advantage. Frequently, such an advantage is embedded in multiple individuals, processes or the culture of an enterprise. Yet, there are cases where one or two individuals hold the keys to these secret chambers. These are the MagusMaxes and they command immense heft in the company’s deliberations. Only a suicidal Patromax or OptoMax would come in the way of these wizards’ wands. 

There is an almost infinite variety of possible competitive advantages business organizations can enjoy and, hence, an equal diversity of 'Magister Ludi'.12  To keep our exposition of manageable length, we shall pick five Ps that can become outstanding competition beaters. The first is Prediction (to the point of premonition) of what the future will (or, in fact, should) hold. A rarely recounted instance of this kind occurred to Douglas Engelbart of SRI: "… '[O]ne day, … it just went click… That day he set out on a mission to find ways to allow people to visually portray the thinking they were doing and link them to other people so they could collaborate – in other words, networked interactive computers with graphic displays." 13 And thus was conceived the screen at which you stare for half your waking life. Next come Product (and service) technology leadership, which is what we most easily associate with competitive advantage. Take, as an example, the lead IBM enjoyed in Disc Drives and how quickly it evaporated after they lost Alan Shugart.14  Third is Process excellence, which frequently drives steep productivity and quality gains. Many today may not recall the name of Taiichi Ohno but for Toyota, and for those of us who tried to mimic its miraculous manufacturing machine, he was the non-pareil necromancer of no-defect.15 Next, we have People connect or the networking advantage which is, almost invariably, individually centred. Particularly in closing large-ticket contracts or gaining advantageous 'adjustments' in Government policy, with or without the aid of 'sweeteners', such dexterous dealers may corner board seats even when these are denied to PatroMaxes and OptoMaxes. Finally, there are Purpose driving prophets who enthuse the mass of employees to deliver beyond normal expectations and make their zeal the competition beater.16  This strategy runs the risk of turning companies into cults.17  However, there is surely a case to be made for lifting the relationship between employee and organization above the purely transactional and purpose is the best way of accomplishing it. Unlike their medieval court prototypes, however, in those few commercial organizations that become intensely purpose-driven, the CEO is unlikely to relinquish the prelate’s role to a deputy.

As with the other two BFE types, MagusMaxes also tend to lean towards one of the vertices of the Faustian Triad: in this case self-deception.18  It is not personal shortcomings that they hide from themselves, however, as much as the doubts, imperfections or obsolescence of the expertise over which they exercise mental mastery. Such a firm blinkering of doubts can be a useful confidence-builder for the team as long as the corporation’s strategic position remains unchanged. However, turbulent times make that span of calm shorter and shorter. In such scenarios, a MagusMax emotionally committed to intellectual orthodoxy is bound to fail.  

HR in the Woods

It is in this fraught forest that young HR professionals must find their way, if they are not to meet the same fate as those innocent infants in Norfolk.19  Each BFE type requires a different touch and we shall take them up in ascending order of difficulty and risk.

The HR challenge in dealing with MagusMaxes relates to their succession. The unique intellectual or interaction prowess they have is difficult to transfer even if they are willing to do so. Accepting that someone could have reached the same towering height through another route, as would happen in choosing an external replacement, intensifies the agony of wand relinquishment. The first palliative HR can apply is to evidence that succession planning is essential for all key roles and, in fact, a signal of their importance to the company. People are not stupid. They can see whether the stars around them, who make themselves dispensable, are decorated or dispensed. If the latter is your corporate practice, good luck with trying to get anyone (particularly a MagusMax) to part with their success secrets. To make the process easier, an individualized, alternative path can be mutually worked out with the MagusMax. Depending on age and interest, this can be part-time and advisory or an exciting new career prospect in nurturing the next core competency identified for competitive success.

Life for HR can be relatively simple when the HR leader for the unit is also the OptoMax – as long as s/he doesn’t take that as a licence to slacken on other deliveries, especially for those who can’t demand accountability.20  Matters become trickier when someone else is the OptoMax and particularly so when that person is hostile and in cahoots with the PatroMax. This is a timely reminder, though these are sound working principles in any case, to metricize, document and publicize (even in external forums) the progress the function has been making. When the likely showdown occurs, supportive voices of PatroMinis can also make a huge difference. One more reason not to service only Patromax demands when times are fair, though professionalism should have ensured such impartiality anyway.

The initial challenge in PatroMax dealings for HR is to resist blandishments to join the 'camp'. The pressure can be intense. After all, not only can a camp-following HR impart a favourable tinge to reports but it can also become a uniquely useful DOW (Dog Of War).21  The costs of remaining independent may not be immediately apparent but, since most PatroMaxes follow the Bush binary (i.e. those not with us are against us), it is only a matter of time before a disagreement can turn into a conflagration. There are two positive solutions to this challenge. The first consists in consensually agreeing on people processes, particularly those for reward, progression and punishment, long before tensions gather. Subsequent pressures to take arbitrary decisions can then be more easily resisted. Once the fire ignites, a functioning, functional conduit to the Global CHRO or Group HR can be a life-saver. Once again, the pipe has to be lined with trust before-hand. Have no doubts. A face off with two BFEs is an unequal fight and chances are that the HR leader will be left looking for a Strato at the end of it.22  Should things reach such a sorry pass, your only consolation can be that your professional conduct and contribution during your tenure will prompt people to say after your departure:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'' 23


  1.  Directed by John P McCarthy, The Western Code, American Western film starring Tim McCoy, Nora Lane and Mischa Auer, 1932.
  2.  Paul A Colinvaux, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective, Penguin, 1980.
  3.  Davis Butcher and Martin Clarke, Smart Management: Using Politics in Organizations, ‎ Palgrave Macmillan; 2nd ed, 2008. 
  4. Antony Jay, Management and Machiavelli, Pelican Books, 1970.
  5.  Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff, Ivan the Terrible, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., 2002.
  6. Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 451-457, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  7.  Kautilya, The Arthashastra, Penguin Classics, 1992.
  8.  Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 433-440, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  9. Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 451-457, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  10.  Ovid, Metamorphoses, W W Norton & Co, 2004.
  11.  Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 433-440, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  12. Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, Vintage Classics, 2000.
  13.  Walter Isaacson, The Innovators, Simon & Schuster, 2015.
  14. James W Cortada, IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon, The MIT Press, 2023.
  15. Taiichi Ohno, Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production, CRC Press, 1988.
  16. Robert E Quinn and Anjan V Thakor, Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization: How to get employees to bring their smarts and energy to work, Harvard Business Review ,July-August 2018.
  17. Manfred F R Kets de Vries, Is Your Corporate Culture Cultish?, Harvard Business Review, 10 May 2019.
  18. Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 433-440, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  19. The Babes in the Wood, Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott, Project Gutenberg License, 2006.
  20. Visty Banaji, HR’s Business Should be Happiness Raising, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 488-496, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  21.  Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 371-377, AuthorsUpfront, 2023
  22. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Arden Shakespeare; 2013.
  23. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Arden Shakespeare; 2013.
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Topics: Strategic HR, Employee Engagement, Talent Management, #HRCommunity, #Work Culture

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