Issue:June 2017

EXTERNAL DELIVERY – Diary of a Wimpy CEO


Not all CEOs have strength of character. What is strength of character you ask? My definition is that is someone who has the personal assets or qualities that make the person resilient to hardships or has the strength to stand up for their beliefs.

I have worked with and for people who had character. They were good listeners, were not autocratic, and would change a decision they had made if they believed another opinion or proposed decision was better than the one they had made.

I learned a great deal from the people I reported to who had character. I remember listening to these people, and when they made a decision I did not agree with or understand, I would meet with them privately to ask for an explanation. That was a great experience and one where I would learn to see things from a different perspective. The best I ever worked with was my boss at Sony.

Now for the other side. I worked for a couple of CEOs who did not have strength of character. They were recognized as wimps and had very little respect from the management team. But because managers understood this CEO was a wimp, they took full advantage of that weakness. Of course, they all became yes-people, passive-aggressive politicians.

This meant that in a meeting, they would become yes people and go along with whatever decisions the CEO made even when they knew they were bad ones. They were passive-aggressive because they would go along with an idea you discussed in a meeting (passive), especially if the CEO agreed, and then meet privately after the meeting with the CEO and rip your idea apart (aggressive). They were political because they sucked up to the CEO at every possible moment. One company I worked for referred to this conduct as “grin stabbing.” They would grin at you when face to face and stab you in the back when they believed they could get away with it.

Reporting to a wimpy CEO or to someone who reports to the wimpy CEO is one of the most demeaning, frustrating, and negative experiences you can have. The worst experiences I have had in my career was when I knew what the correct decision was, but Mr. Wimpy wouldn’t make that decision. Too risky, too costly, too whatever.

One company I worked for manufactured alarm systems for both residential homes and commercial businesses. I made a presentation to management, to include the CEO, explaining that I wanted to establish a razor/razor blade model for the residential business. We would break even or make a small profit on the alarm system hardware and could make big money on the monitoring service. Mr. Wimpy stated if we were to miss an alarm call, we would get sued and be out of business. All of the yes-people passive-aggressive politicians agreed with him. Even though I had done the upfront work with legal on how to protect the company from a liability standpoint and had the General Council sign off on it, the idea died a fast death. I wonder how ADT and Sloman Shield would have felt about this if we had come out with it first!

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John A. Bermingham is former Executive Vice President & COO of 1st Light Energy & Conservation Lighting, Inc. and former Co-President and COO of AgraTech, a biotech enterprise. He was also President & CEO of Cord Crafts, LLC; President & CEO of Alco Consumer Products, Inc., Lang Holdings, Inc., and President, Chairman, and CEO of Ampad, all of which he turned around and successfully sold. With more than 20 years of turnaround experience, he also held the positions of Chairman, President, and CEO of Centis, Inc., Smith Corona, Corporation, and Rolodex Corporation as well as turning around several business units of AT&T Consumer Products Group and served as the EVP of the Electronics Group, and President of the Magnetic Products Group, Sony Corporation of America.

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