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Interview: Why Good CEOs Make Bad Moves

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College. He authored the 2004 No. 1 business best-seller, Why Smart Executives Fail, based on extensive research on what causes successful companies run by smart executives to suddenly drive off a cliff in terms of performance.

The book is as relevant today as it was in the post-Enron world of Sarbanes-Oxley. Indeed, it seems we haven't learned much from that period and have set ourselves up for the current -- even more serious -- economic decline.

I've known Syd for 12 years and worked on consulting projects with him. There are few people in Corporate America today who understand what drives CEOs and Directors as well as Syd.

He's about to release his new book, which he co-authored, called Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You. It's published by Harvard Business Press and is coming out next month.

I caught up with him earlier this week to discuss the current market environment, what caused it and what we can learn from it. The following is a transcript of our discussion.

(Note: I will also be writing an upcoming RealMoney article, where Syd discusses specific investment recommendations based on his research.)

Jackson: As someone who teaches and consults with CEOs and Boards, what surprises you most about what we've lived through in the last 12 months?

Finkelstein: There are three things that stand out to me. Number one: Why are there no people protesting in the streets? I find it hard to believe that people are so passive. We've all been witness to a high-jacking of the economy by many corporate executives and boards in the name of higher profits without adequate risk-protection.

Now, our government is deciding in its wisdom to dole out potentially trillions of dollars in our money -- without clarity on if it will work. The average person is losing his job and half of his 401k. Maybe we don't understand it; maybe it's a generational thing. We should be more upset and demanding more accountability.

We did a panel discussion recently at Tuck. There was an economist talking about the bailout and why TARP made sense. There was an investment person talking about potential return on investment for taxpayers with TARP. I talked about everyday people's reactions to what was going on. The bonuses which are considered Standard Operation Procedure on Wall Street are so far removed from the man-on-the-street. There was a major disconnect that still exists and needs to be bridged.

As a professor, I've given a lot of talks in my career, but I can tell you I've never had such a strong reaction as to that talk. Staff people, students, regular people from Hanover [New Hampshire] all came up to me afterwards. It touched a nerve with them. There are real people struggling out there now and just can't relate to the fantasy world of expected bonuses and $87,000 area rugs.

The second thing that strikes me about what's going on: Where are the shareholder activists? It's been astonishing to me to watch the growth of these activists in the last 10 years (including what you were able to do at Yahoo! (YHOO) using the Web). But where is Carl Icahn now?

The sad part of the activists' success in the past few years is that our Boards of Directors are so inept that we have to rely on outsiders to correct the problems which should be solved by management and boards within their own companies.

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