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TheStreet Open House

Opinion:Thain's Undoing Was Thinking He's Worth It

Sydney Finkelstein, a Professor of Management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business with whom I've worked on consulting projects, published a 2004 business best-seller called "Why Smart Executives Fail" that looked at 60 successful CEOs who later failed, including Kozlowski, Enron's Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and George Shaheen of dot-bomb Webvan. The book is a great read -- and very current, given what we're living through.

Finkelstein summarizes what he calls the "Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives." One of those habits seems very relevant to John Thain: "They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation's interests." This was the habit that derailed Kozlowski, in Finkelstein's opinion. Here's a brief except from the book on this trait:

"We want business leaders to be completely committed to their companies, with their interests tightly aligned with those of the company. But digging deeper, you find that failed executives weren't identifying too little with the company, but rather too much. Instead of treating companies as enterprises that they needed to nurture, failed leaders treated them as extensions of themselves. And with that, a 'private empire' mentality took hold.

"CEOs who possess this outlook often use their companies to carry out personal ambitions. The most slippery slope of all for these executives is their tendency to use corporate funds for personal reasons. CEOs who have a long or impressive track record may come to feel that they've made so much money for the company that the expenditures they make on themselves, even if extravagant, are trivial by comparison. This twisted logic seems to have been one of the factors that shaped the behavior of Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco. His pride in his company and his pride in his own extravagance seem to have reinforced each other."

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