November 5th, 2014
In the story The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, a foolish emperor is gulled by two conmen posing as weavers. They offer to make him the finest garment made of the most magnificent material in the world. Yet they warn him that this material is invisible to anyone who lacks intelligence.
When his chief adviser visits the “weavers” to examine the new clothes he sees nothing [for there’s nothing to see], but he lies and praises the new garments and informs his emperor of their magnificence.
When the emperor parades naked through the streets, everyone praises his appearance, all of them unwilling to appear stupid. Until a small child speaks up and states unequivocally that the emperor is naked. At last the truthful honesty of the child affects the rest of the crowd and they all now admit that their poor ruler is wearing nothing but an increasingly nervous smile. But such honesty came too late for the emperor.
So. What lesson can be learned from this?
It’s an object lesson in listening to the right advice.
CEOs, like emperors, rely heavily on the advice they are given from those whose role it is to advise. Sometimes, that advice can be counter-productive or even non-existent – some board members don’t like to ruffle feathers, while others might be content to let things drift and make sure they don’t rock the boat.
The emperor’s chief adviser, for instance, lacked the necessary courage to offer genuine advice owing to a reluctance to upset his ruler. The ultimate result was humiliation: if he had been resolute and truthful when reporting back on the quality of the proposed new product, then the poor emperor would have been spared the indignity of his naked parade through town.
Imagine what would have happened if the emperor had had the foresight to bring in a non-executive director to work alongside his chief adviser and the rest of his cabinet. Perhaps the meeting would have run along these lines:
Emperor: And now we come to these potential new clients. The Konnman Brothers. They’ve written to me and what they’re offering seems truly amazing. What do you think, Toady?
Toady: It does sound amazing, your majesty.
Emperor: Then it would be a good idea for you to visit their workshop and check out the quality of their merchandise?
Ned: If I may, your majesty? You brought me into the cabinet to offer unbiased advice based on my sector expertise.
Emperor: Your what?
Ned: My experience in the weaving trade.
Ned: The company I used to work for had dealings with the Konnman Brothers. Their workmanship was shoddy, and they failed to meet deadline after deadline. Not to mention a cavalier approach to invoicing. We should have no association with them whatsoever.
Emperor: But I need my new clothes for the parade and they have given me verbal assurances that the special cloth – their new invention – will take my breath away.
Ned: Verbal assurances from the Konnman Brothers aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
Emperor: Is that supposed to be funny?
Ned: Besides, now that you mention the importance of appearing in new garments for the parade, there is a company I have had dealings with, and the quality of what they produce is outstanding….
And so, because of a timely and spirited intervention by Ned the Non-Exec, the chief adviser retained his head, the emperor was spared his humiliating parade, and the people were spared a glimpse of the crown jewels.
What’s more, the contacts that Ned brought to the emperor’s cabinet produced huge increases in profit, and the emperor and his kingdom grew from strength to strength.
And they all lived happily ever after.
With thanks to Ian Wright of www.nonexecutivedirectors.com