Monday, 4 May 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #280: The Wisdom of Comedians & Kenny Rogers

You gotta know when to hold them
Know when to fold them
Know when to walk away
Know when to run

There's a certain amount of wisdom in those simple homespun country lyrics that can help someone not only in gambling in the old west, but in modern show business as well.

As I've said before, one of the main reasons top executives and CEO get bladed and brought down is that many of them only know how to hold them, not when to fold, they definitely don't know when to walk away, and the certainly never know when to run. It's like that scene in American Gangster where the Asian drug lord informs Harlem gang-lord Frank Lucas that "it's not really quitting when you quit when you're ahead."

Of course Lucas goes in for one last score, leading to his capture by Russell Crowe, and the downfall of his empire. In the movies Louis B. Mayer tried hang onto power and still run MGM the way it had been run in the 1930s, the problem was that it was the 1950s, and his attempt to please his ego, ruined his relationship with his shareholders, and ultimately his ouster from the company that bore his name.

It's also like a comedian, when they're doing stand-up they know that the key is to end on a high note. Also know when you've reached the end of your time, hit him with a real knockout punchline, say "goodnight everybody," and walk off the stage, leaving them hankering for more.

However, unlike comedy, this is not a search for subtle cues among an audience in a dark nightclub. The signs that it is time to walk away (or run) are pretty obvious, you just have to have the eyes to see them. Now I've mentioned some of these things before, but like any good lesson, they bear repeating.


1. When you are no longer thinking about it as a business, but as an extension of yourself.

When you run a studio, especially a major founded in the 1910s, you are not the company, but merely a steward. Your mission is to create profits for your shareholders, and when you do go, which is inevitable, to leave the company in better shape than when you found it. Sadly, too many CEOs start to think that the company lives and dies around them. It's like a French monarch declaring that "apres mois les deluge," which fundamentally means "without me, there is nothing."

That's a delusion. Without you, the company will go on, with someone else at the helm. The best you can hope for is that when you do leave, people will look back at your time as a golden age, when the company was run well and everyone did good work that made money.

When you can't imagine yourself without the company, or the company without you, your mindset shifts from doing your job well, to just holding onto power. And that really hurts your company, and your own reputation and career.

2. When you start letting your ego make decisions.

The first obvious sign of this is the moment you first yell to some valet parker / waiter / prostitute / police officer- "Don't you know who I am? I'm (Insert First Name) Fucking (Insert Last Name)!"

That means that you have let your hunger for status and power override your common sense, and good manners. It is at this stage that you no longer make business decisions for business reasons, but by how many folks will kiss your ass at swanky parties. That is not good, because the only opinion you should care about, are the opinions of the audience, and your shareholders. Because when you make the audience happy, your shareholders should get happy very soon after, and while they may not feed your ego, they will feed your bank account, and that's what matters.

3. You don't know how to respond to criticism.

This is when Sign 1 and Sign 2 join together and separate you from reality. CEOs that let their ego run the company, attract criticism like a dead goat attracts flies. When the only response they have to this criticism of their management is to declare that they will somehow achieve immortality to keep running the company, and keep everything exactly how it is. They can't see that they are the problem.

So how does one avoid this problem of, well, becoming a problem?

The answer is a simple 3 point strategy...

1. Have someone who isn't afraid to tell you that you are full of shit. This is important to keep you grounded in the real world, because there's nothing worse than a room full of yes men.

2. Have goals. Plan ahead, say I intend to make this company do this and that, and then once I have these goals met, I will retire by a certain age.

3. Have an exit strategy. The beauty of being a mogul who retires on good terms is that you pick your successors, and you can use that good relationship with your successor to have a post-CEO career as a producer, financier, beach bum, or any other position you might find fun and challenging.

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