Case Stories

A Defiant CEO Won’t Face Reality

9. A defiant CEO won't face reality

This story is true, but names and details have been changed to protect anonymity.

“We know you invented this category,” we said, staring at the results of the customer survey, “but you slipped out of first place a while ago.” The owner and founder of the industry-defining brand was frustrated. Ambitious competitors had stolen her lead. “It looks like you’ve fallen in customer preference,” we said, “but it gets worse: your employee morale is nearing rock bottom. We’re in a really sensitive place.”

She didn’t want to hear it, let alone make changes to fix it. Since she invented the market, she felt she deserved to be the leader of it. The rest of the executive team sitting around the table was tense as we cautioned, “You’re running out of time.”

Facing hard truth, something changed in the owner’s countenance. She looked at us like we had just met. After working together for 12 months, she began retelling her origin story as if the turnaround plan sitting in front of her didn’t exist. Her managers, who privately pleaded with us for help, sat nodding along. We listened for nearly an hour, stunned at her ability to avoid the obvious and justify inaction.

Finally, we said, “We respect what you’ve accomplished here. It truly is incredible. But something has to be done. Your people are scared, and your customers are unhappy. This turnaround plan gives you a real chance.” We walked out of the meeting and never saw the owner again. The company neared bankruptcy within a year.

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