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What to do when the executive has no clothes

Technology executives are notorious for not suffering fools lightly. But what happens when they're the fools?

Technology executives are notorious for their out-of-proportion egos and hot-headed tempers. Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs-- even Andy Grove--are all members of a long list of distinguished high-tech executives who are famous for not suffering fools lightly, among other things.

But what happens when they're the fools? What happens when a high-powered executive has his head up his you-know-what and has lost all sense of objectivity? What happens when a gutsy employee speaks up? Well, in many cases he gets his head chopped off for his trouble. In shrink speak this is called transference, which in this case means unconsciously taking one's own feelings of inferiority and guilt out on another.

Given a choice, the vast majority of people would rather forgo the whole decapitation thing rather than declare that "the emperor (or should I say executive) has no clothes." Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is rampant in the technology industry.

So, what should you do when you come across this kind of thing? I'm not talking about ideas that sound good at the time and later turn out to be real bombs. If you don't wipe out from time-to-time, you're not taking enough risks.

I'm talking about ideas that are so obviously dumb that half the company must be wondering what the exec-in-charge was smoking when he came up with it.


Case in point: Dell's second foray into the crowded MP3 market. If everyone who e-mailed me this morning can see what a bad idea it is to go up against Apple's lethal iPod-iTunes combination, not to mention all the other MP3 players and services out there--a second time, no less--you'd think somebody would have pointed that out to whoever's in charge of this product line at Dell.

Yeah, I know, it's different this time. It's cheap, it's an end-to-end solution, yada, yada. Give me a break. I still think it's a dumb idea. And I'm sure that lots of folks at Dell think it is, too, but they're afraid to speak up.

I've worked with quite a few CEOs who, let's just say they didn't take criticism of their ideas or methods all too well. Come to think of it, I don't either. What can I say; at least I admit it.

My favorite example: When microprocessor-maker Cyrix launched its long-awaited Pentium competitor--the M1 aka 6x86 processor--CEO Jerry Rogers actually priced it higher--that's right, $1 higher, to be exact--than Intel's comparable chip. Then, when he couldn't get any PC-makers to bite (I wonder why), he decided to launch a Cyrix-branded PC to show Dell, Gateway, and Compaq what they missed.

Let's see what other examples of this kind of thing I can come up with off the top of my head.

Motorola somehow thinking it could just milk the RAZR design--even after everyone else had done the thin thing and moved on--in a market with product cycles shorter than the lifespan of a tic.

Intel's failed multibillion dollar foray into the communications market. Maybe that wasn't so obvious, but I called it and I'm sure I wasn't alone.


Then there were Gateway's thousand and one desperate ideas to revive the failing company: the Gateway stores; shutting down its international business; the move into consumer electronics; Ted Waitt's silly ads; rebranding the company twice; and relocating its corporate headquarters not once, not twice, but three times.

Anyway, there must be zillions of examples of this kind of thing. If you can't speak up to your boss, at least do it anonymously for CNET's readers to enjoy.

Last word
In all seriousness, you make your own decisions and then you live with the consequences. In my experience, life is too short to let your company go down in flames because you're afraid of a little abuse. Besides, dysfunctional executives typically appreciate employees who aren't afraid to speak their minds, even while they're cursing you up one side and down the other.

What if you get canned for it? That's their loss, not yours. Besides, then you get to use one of my favorite lines: "I've been fired by better people!"