Topgrading CEO Tortured

Back view of businessman standing at crossroads and making choice

Of my almost 7,000 Topgrading Interviews, this is one of the strangest! This is a compelling account of how a future CEO overcame 6 months of torture and adversity that got his values so messed up he went to jail. The client name and industry have been changed for anonymity.

Juan headed a global financial services company generally considered to be the most innovative in the world. As a child, Juan was reared to prepare to overthrow his country’s dictator, and at 20 years of age, he made the attempt, but failed. The dictator captured Juan and a friend, strung them up, and sliced off his friend’s private parts. When the dictator was about to do the same to Juan, he urinated in the dictator’s face. Or so he told me.

Rather than immediately kill Juan, the dictator decided to torture him, putting Juan in a box similar to a coffin, where he was kept barely alive. The dictator was overthrown six months later; Juan was hospitalized another six months; then, 20 years later, founded his company with offices in 150 countries.

To emerge from the torture box to mold a highly respected global company as CEO required resourcefulness, drive, brains, and guts. You’re thinking, “Brad, this guy sounds like a hero, so where’s the negative?” You’ll see.

Juan hired me to help Topgrade the top three levels of his company, a three-year project. Early in my consulting engagement Juan invited me to Las Vegas, promising that we’d make $250,000 his “secret way.” He hinted we’d have fun (“private jet, penthouse suite, no wives—just the guys, heh-heh”). I’d heard Juan “fooled around a lot,” but not with women inside the company. I was curious as to why Vegas hotels would pay all our expenses and then write us checks for $250,000, but when asked, Juan simply said, “You’ll see.”

Needless to say, I declined Juan’s offer and he never asked me again. It didn’t occur to me that Juan had a gambling addiction, because he had shown me his net worth in an estate document — a half-billion dollars.

Juan had a huge personality and ego. I witnessed his ordering a U.S. senator to “get your ass over here now.” I sat in on a meeting with 50 board members and eight translators, and Juan masterfully molded the opinions of the group so that he would get exactly what he wanted. In a champagne event where anyone else would toast three heads of state with grace, sophistication, and poise, Juan got away with an outrageous dirty joke. I would have loved to put Juan though a Topgrading Interview and talk to people who had known him over the years, because he was unique and fascinating. But it never happened. The Topgrading engagement was packing the organization with talent and Juan was doing well as the leader, so it didn’t occur to me that Juan’s idiosyncrasies might include stealing from the company. When the Topgrading engagement was over, we had a final dinner in Washington, D.C., at the Watergate Hotel. We toasted each other and said good-bye, with my wondering what the heck I didn’t know about Juan.

Two weeks later the FBI marched into Juan’s offices, and just as in the first Wall Street movie, he did the perp walk. Juan had bribed 10 consultants, contractors, and others to give him kickbacks on their contracts, apparently to support his gambling habit. He’d take them to Las Vegas, get them girls, and persuade them to participate in kickback schemes. The consultants didn’t do much work, which caused them some legal problems. I was the only one of the consultants and contractors who was never even called by the FBI — I suppose because there were so many of my reports that showed I actually did the work for which I invoiced the company.

Phew! Why, when I suspected that Juan was a sociopath, didn’t I walk away from the engagement? I didn’t know he’d bribed anyone, taken kick-backs, or had broken any laws, and I’d only heard vague rumors of the details of his Las Vegas trips and his marital difficulties. I figured that if the torture story was true, Juan’s brain was a little messed up and he figured he could overcome any obstacle. But outsmarting the FBI?

Topgrading Principle
This is just more than a really odd story about a really unusual man; it’s somewhat of a Topgrading parable:

Resourcefulness is the most important of all competencies, but it doesn’t come with a moral foundation.  Just watch American Greed on TV to see plenty more smart, resourceful “doers” who “did” what they did illegally.

Had Juan been a candidate for hire, the standard Topgrading approach would have had Juan arranging reference calls with all bosses (four in his case), three subordinates, and three peers – picked by me! I’d bet that there were plenty of indications of his dishonesty that thorough reference checks would have disclosed.

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