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Are You Burning Down Your House?

The Talking Heads' great song, "Burning Down the House" came to my mind recently when I was reading about Syria. The Syrian president managed to maintain power with a 95% majority of votes which was made easier by destroying his own country to maintain power.

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This is also not unusual in the business world. Many an agency has been burned to the ground just so the owner could maintain their position. The lyrics to the Talking Heads' song go, "Get them out. Watch out, you might get what you’re after... I'm an ordinary guy. Burning down the house."


The question is whether a person manages/owns a business in order to achieve a greater good, to build a legacy, to build a business, or if their motives are totally about protecting their position at any cost? I once worked with an agency owner who had misappropriated around $1 million from the agency, without his partners' knowledge. Of course, being partners, they were on the hook for the missing money just as much as he was. I was hired to help sort out the issues and identify a solution. When I offered some solutions, he dismissed them all with the comment, "The agency can last until I die without fixing the problem. Once I die, it is someone else's problem and that is my solution." He achieved his goal. He died without fixing the problem. His position was secured in the eyes of many who did not know about the missing money and others were left to clean up the mess. He burned down the house and was outwardly, an ordinary guy. He was lucky in that he died when he did, and his issues never became public.


Many years ago a publicly traded company's president called and threatened me with banishment from the insurance industry for analyzing his company and concluding it was basically bankrupt. He called me every name in the book and probably a few new ones. His CFO was so embarrassed that he called me back to apologize or at least to let me know he did not support such childish behavior. A year or two later the FBI raided the company. Short of an actual fire, those folks truly burned down the house leaving a number of people short of funds.


A quieter example happens when an owner only hires sycophants. They would rather have their agency disintegrate than employ someone who has the tenacity to offer an opinion the owner may see as confrontational.


When people are intent on holding onto power even if they ride their throne down to ashes, it is usually pretty pointless to try to open their minds. Their insecurities are too far off the chart. However, in case you are riding your agency into the ground and yet are open to changing, or if you are wondering if you are working for such a person, here are some tips and suggestions:


  1. What level of accountability exists for the owner? Is great leadership exhibited? Success is achieved if the owner is accountable to the organization, which means being accountable to employees. As a business owner with employees, those employees count on your success for their jobs. Being accountable for your part in their job security is your responsibility. If you are selling, this means continually growing your book. Or, if you are at capacity, it means hiring producers and growing the agency.

  2. What focus exists on organic success? M&A can disguise a lack of leadership and accountability for a long, long time. Organic success requires quality leadership because organic success requires building, depending on teams, allowing others to possess authority, allowing people to question and possess considerable levels of self-determination and the accountability that goes with self-determination. Acquisitions don't work the same way. I think most people know that one reason acquisitions are done is to hide poor organic results.

  3. Is the agency excessively paternalistic? This is a tough situation. My firm does employee surveys for agencies and when the scores indicate an excessively paternalistic management environment, addressing the required improvements is delicate work.

The employees are almost always frustrated at some level with the work environment but simultaneously feel safe because they know the owners will take care of them in the immediate future.


I was in a family agency perpetuation meeting and the issue was that a sibling was not really very good at selling insurance. The other sibling felt a visceral paternalistic need to provide a job for their sibling because they were not sure he could make a decent living at any job. A coach gave the best advice I have ever heard for that situation. He said, "If you really care about your sibling, you'll make them stand on their own and even create the opportunity for them to gain the required skills, but you will quit supporting them because don't you think they will have a better future and feel better about themselves if they know they can support themselves?"


A true leader supports their employees' growth and lets them fail, even firing them for failure. The firm is stronger regardless of the outcome. If a leader wants to truly be paternalistic, this is the path they will take. If a leader wants to be a pseudo paternalistic leader, they will protect people who really are not cutting it and they won't create opportunities for employees to take the initiative to improve.


What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader do you want to work for?


Some leaders, by default rulers more than leaders, will burn down the house to maintain their position. When leading a country, the failure to maintain leadership might lead to assassination so I can understand the desperation involved. Leading a business and choosing to maintain power at all costs only protects delicate egos and often damages the owners' own financial welfare. However the stakes are just as high in those agency owners' minds. They fear assassination if they lose total control. I feel for them.


Options exist if this is you or if you are working for someone like these owners. What choice will you make?

NOTE: The information provided herein is intended for educational and informational purposes only and it represents only the views of the authors. It is not a recommendation that a particular course of action be followed. Burand & Associates, LLC and Chris Burand assume, and will have, no responsibility for liability or damage which may result from the use of any of this information.


None of the materials in this article should be construed as offering legal advice, and the specific advice of legal counsel is recommended before acting on any matter discussed in this article. Regulated individuals/entities should also ensure that they comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.

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