Management Speak: He has a different business model from the previous CEO.
Translation: Keep your head down until you find out which way the wind is blowing.
Our contributor this week has chosen to keep his head down until he finds out which way the wind is blowing.

John’s worst career mistake happened after a reorganization. His new manager, part of the new executive leadership team, had asked his opinion on several issues.

John cheerfully complied. Big mistake.

Executives are smart to learn as much about each new area of responsibility as they can. That means taking their direct reports to lunch, asking questions, and listening carefully. John’s new manager did exactly what she was supposed to do.

John achieved his goals in this conversation. He demonstrated his encyclopedic grasp of technology, his extensive knowledge of how to run IS, and his philosophy of leadership — which was based in large part on a management “initiative” that had been extolled as the Next Big Thing by the previous CEO. He figured he’d done a great job of impressing his new boss.

And he had. He’d impressed her with his insights, his range, and his leadership potential — and with his lack of interest in her insights, range, leadership, plans, and goals. Even worse, he demonstrated loyalty to the old regime. In short, he’d established himself as a potential troublemaker but not as a likely source of support.

So John went into “special projects,” wondering what had gone wrong and feeling bitter about his enforced change of career direction.

Served him right.

Executives get a lot of flak for bringing in management fads — panaceas that will make the company a great place to work, increase market share, generate awesome shareholder value, and cure the common cold. The flak is largely undeserved. Although these fads rarely accomplish anything, they’re the inevitable result of people doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. If you want to avoid John’s fate, you need to understand the dynamics of management fads.

Most fads fall into one of two categories. The first, Humoring a Promising Subordinate (HAPS) happens when the CEO wants to provide an opportunity for a protege. The protege reads about a promising new something and voila! HAPS happens.

You can recognize HAPS by the lack of CEO commitment. You’ll hear lip service, and you’ll probably attend a training session, but you’ll find the CEO’s attention focused on more pressing matters, such as new product development, a change in market focus, or improving the company’s key ratios.

Follow the leader. Give the HAPS lip service and whatever attention you think it deserves based on its intrinsic merits. HAPS can offer very good ideas. It just doesn’t represent the company’s strategic direction.

The more dangerous fads are Strategic Company Directions (SCDs) sponsored directly by the CEO and leadership team. They are major change initiatives, intended to transform the organization. Typically, SCDs won’t pay off for several years — three years is the minimum for total quality management, for example — and they can’t succeed unless the whole company gets behind them.

CEOs don’t get three years. Unless short-term results are strong, the board will find a new CEO. Since the board doesn’t hire a new CEO to implement ideas that didn’t work, that big SCD is yesterday’s news — a fad.

When faced with an SCD, commit to it. Do everything you can to make it succeed. If and when the company leadership changes, make it clear that you’re an implementer, not an advocate, and that you’ll work just as hard to implement the new team’s strategic direction. In other words, listen before you opine.

There are no bad guys here. Shareholders invest wanting prices to rise immediately, not three years from now. Boards of directors serve shareholders. The CEO answers to the board — no leeway there — and the rest of management follows along. Remarkably, the long-term health of the company isn’t anyone’s top priority — except, perhaps, employees’. And many companies, by their actions, discourage employee loyalty.

Sure, there are some executives who move from fad to fad like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. They’re the exception. Most are doing what they’re paid to do. They’re trying to define, articulate, and create the future company according to their vision, not someone else’s.

I know. I was John.