Big Shoes to Fill (HBR Case Study and Commentary)


Jack Donally was a colossal figure who commanded a lot of respect, if not affection. Just before Jack suddenly died, the board appointed Stephanie Fortas as the new CEO to lead Innostat, the world’s best-known manufacturer of prosthetic limbs and surgical implants. Innostat has recently been struggling; its once generous margins have been narrowing for the past several years as other companies have found ways to engineer around its patents and develop competitive products of their own. Worse, the company seems to have lost its innovative edge: It has not launched a major new product in four years. The previous year, the board rejected a plan for a large-scale reorganization that might have addressed many of these fundamental problems. Should Stephanie revive the plan? Her coach tells her she doesn’t have the clout to survive a reorg and advises her to scope out new products and drive them through the way Jack used to. Meanwhile, Stephanie deliberates about whether to fire Frank Timoshotsky, the self-effacing head of production who had been Jack’s protege and who was passed over for the CEO position.

Worse Than Enemies: The CEO’s Destructive Confidant


The CEO is often the most isolated and protected employee in the organization. Few leaders, even veteran CEOs, can do the job without talking to someone about their experiences, which is why most develop a close relationship with a trusted colleague, a confidant to whom they can tell their thoughts and fears. In his work with leaders, the author has found that many CEO-confidant relationships function very well. The confidants keep their leaders’ best interests at heart. They derive their gratification vicariously, through the help they provide rather than through any personal gain, and they are usually quite aware that a person in their position can potentially abuse access to the CEO’s innermost secrets. Unfortunately, almost as many confidants will end up hurting, undermining, or otherwise exploiting CEOs when the executives are at their most vulnerable. The leader is often the last one to know when or how the confidant relationship became toxic. The author has identified three types of destructive confidants. The reflector mirrors the CEO, constantly reassuring him that he is the “fairest CEO of them all.” The insulator buffers the CEO from the organization, preventing critical information from getting in or out. And the usurper cunningly ingratiates himself with the CEO in a desperate bid for power.

Subjects Covered

CEO, Communication, Executives, Human behavior, Human relations, Interpersonal behavior, Interpersonal relations, Leadership, Personal strategy & style, Upper management.