The Creosote, this High-Performing Manager Who Destroys Your Business

One of the important factors of organization decline is the type of managers it recruits and promotes. Among them is what I call the ‘Creosote manager’, the one who kills life all around him to flourish. Creosote people populate just about every organization that I encounter and that have so much trouble innovating. Would there not then be a causal link?

The creosote is little-known bush, its scientific name is Larrea tridentata. In fact you know him, it is this bush which, dry, is tossed by the wind and that one sees turning on itself in the Hollywood westerns. This bush has a peculiarity: it contains creosote, hence its name, which is a toxic substance. And evolution has rendered him a proud service: as it grows only in the desert, this poison kills every vegetable form around it. In a context where water and nutrients are scarce, this ability to kill any competition is a valuable asset for its survival.

A plant that lives in the desert and which, to flourish, kills every form of life around it… it is the perfect metaphor for a certain type of manager that companies love… at their expense, the creosote manager.

Like the bush, the creosote manager flourishes in the desert, that is to say that one finds him in the companies that have already passed the point of breakdown of their creative capacity and entered the phase of decline. But this decline is not yet seen in the numbers, quite the contrary. They live by what has been creatively achieved in the past and try to make the most of it.

The creosote manager eliminates unnecessary dissent and chatter, focusing on operational performance. The creosote manager has no patience for nuances and hesitations – procrastination, as he or she calls it. The creosote manager demands flawless execution, as it is key to the performance of an organization that has ceased to be creative. The creosote manager knows that resources are scarce, and is careful not to waste them. He hates costs. Ideally, he would prefer death, because it costs nothing. That is why the creosote manager loves the desert: few resources, little waste, and those who waste resources die quickly. Unnecessary or unprofitable projects are thus eliminated. The creosote manager likes KPIs: “Everything that can’t be measured can’t managed,” as he repeats all the time, using the false evidences learned in business school that constitutes his thinking.

But most importantly, the creosote manager is a poison. It was Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, who spoke about the dilemma he faced about such managers (though he did not use the expression): he explained that there were two dimensions that he took into account in the evaluation of managers: their performance and their fit with the culture of the organization. Obviously the ideal case is a performing manager that fits with the culture. Another easy case is the one who is neither performing nor in phase with the culture. The one who is in phase but not performing can be trained and encouraged.

But the one who is performing but not in phase poses a real dilemma. What to do when this performance is achieved at the expense of the rest of the organization? Welch explained that he kept agonizing over such cases: a performing manager is so useful! But in the end, he always preferred the manager in question to leave, and we can understand why. Perhaps useful in the very short term, this manager destroys the culture of the organization and ultimately the organization itself. He creates a desert around him and the results he can achieve come at a high price eventually: creative people, those with strong character and original views leave (or are pushed towards Exit), and only remain the obedient and compliant ones, the mediocre careerists and powerless too scared to lose their job. No one dares to contest a decision anymore, no one dares to say that the King is naked. Worse still, the nuanced information no longer goes back to the higher levels; there only remains the smooth presentation of a few quantitative indicators that – as we know – so rarely represent the operational reality, and easily support a lie. A culture of silence is established in which the criterion of success is obedience.

When the company rides on the success of its dominant activity and is not threatened by a disruption, the creosote manager can make an illusion. It contributes directly to the success of the organization and its performance. He is praised for that, and criticism is silenced. But by focusing on operations, all options are forgone that could be useful in the case of a change in the environment. It sows the seeds of future failure. But that does not happen in the short run. What happens in the short run is the breakdown in creative capacity, which effects are not yet visible. When they eventually are, it will be too late. Besides, the creosote manager will be long gone by then, celebrated as a hero because of his performances. For of course the creosote manager is also a mercenary. Produce results quickly, hide problems under the carpet, and leave before the grenade explodes – that is the Creosote signature behavior. It will be left to the lifers of the organization to clean up the mess, if that is still possible.

You’ve probably met creosote managers; they’re everywhere. They populate the companies that try so hard to innovate. Faith in their power rests on a misconception of what drives an organization’s performance: a conception according to which performance is individual, whereas it is primarily collective; a conception based on “talents” that has become the obsession of HR departments who forget that talent is always contextual. The arrival of creosotes is more the symptom of intellectual decay than of strategic strength for they are a caricature of management. The real act of leadership is to get rid of them before it’s too late.

Philippe Silberzahn, emlyon business school

I am a professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at emlyon business school and an associate researcher at the Ecole Polytechnic, where I received my PhD. My work focuses on the way in which organisations manage complex and radically uncertain situations both from an entrepreneurial and a managerial angle. I regularly speak on these issues for companies at conferences, seminars or as a consultant. My work is backed up by over twenty years of experience in the industry as an entrepreneur and company director.
I created the first ever MOOC (an introduction to entrepreneurship) in France, focused on effectuation. I am also the creator of the MOOC “IDEA, an introduction to design thinking”. Passionate about entrepreneurship, I am a member of the editorial committee of the journal “Revue Entreprendre et Innover“.

More information on Philippe Silberzahn:
His CV online
His blog
• His Academia Page

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Feb 3rd, 2017|Categories: Economics & Finance, Philippe Silberzahn, Work & Organizations|

One of the important factors of organization decline is the type of managers it recruits and promotes. Among them is what I call the ‘Creosote manager’, the one who kills life all around him to flourish. Creosote people populate just about every organization that I encounter and that have so much trouble innovating. Would there not then be a causal link?

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