A Test for Executive Candidates – It’s Time to Power Off and Stow…


A few years ago, there was a lot of buzz about how a board should evaluate a potential job candidate by seeing how they treat waiters and other “lowly” employees in a restaurant (see “CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character“). The idea came from a CEO who used this test with people he was considering, since everybody will be polite to their potential hiring CEO, but might treat “underlings” with contempt and treat them badly, showing signs of a “ego out of control.”

I think CEOs and other senior leaders should be given that similar test, by their potential hiring board members… but I think I've also come up with a test for this modern age that might be useful for evaluating senior leaders… take them on a commercial flight.

Ironically, the CEO who proposed “The Waiter Rule” was Bill Swanson, of Raytheon. He published this tip as part of a list of 33:

The CEO who came up with it, or at least first wrote it down, is Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson. He wrote a booklet of 33 short leadership observations called  Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management. Raytheon has given away  250,000 of the books.

You might recall that Swanson had a bit of a plagiarism scandal related to this book, as I blogged about here. Tip 34 should have been “don't plagiarize” or “don't delegate the writing of your book to staff members who might plagiarize on your behalf.”

Back to my main point… I think a great test of executive character and how they will perform as a leader comes at that key point during the boarding process, when the flight attendant says “the door is now closed, it is time to turn off and stow your phones and portable devices.”

I fly a lot and I see many people selfishly continue their phone call or continue tapping out emails after the announcement is made. This behavior tends to be from the relatively young (college students on their iPhones) OR senior executive types on their BlackBerries or iPhones.

I see a lot of this, especially if I manage to get upgraded. There is often that one self-important looking executive who just can't be bothered with the rules that apply to everybody else. They initiate a phone call and bark orders to somebody as the door is closing. They “turn off” the device by blanking the screen and putting in their shirt pocket. They roll their eyes if they flight attendant says “sir, you need to turn that off” as if to say “how dare you tell me what to do.” They continue to use their phones on the taxiway and often look at them right after takeoff, when the plane can still get a cell signal… squeezing in one last email before getting up in the air.

People sometimes argue that these rules are silly… that one phone left on won't interfere with a plane's electronics and it won't bring the plane down (we know this is true since phones are left on all the time by mistake, as I've done). But, safety advocates argue that one reason we power down electronic devices is to be free of distractions during the critical take off and landing stage of flight. From this excellent WSJ article on the topic:

Indeed, there's no firm scientific evidence that having gadgets powered up for takeoff and landing would cause a problem, only that there's the potential for a problem.

When I see people flouting the rule and leaving their device on, I'm not worried about crashing. I'm annoyed by the antisocial behavior that's being displayed – behavior that says “I'm more important than everyone else.”

I think that would be a bad trait for a CEO or a senior leader. Granted, many big company CEOs fly around in private jets. But, if you can get a candidate to fly commercial, I'd suggest watching their behavior and what they do when the door closes.

I'd argue that a CEO who would flout a rule (and not even attempt to hide it) is the type of person who would flout other rules or create other potential liability for the company. Sure, there's a time to “break the rules” in an industry, I get that. But, there's a time and place for following key rules that keep a company out of trouble (SEC rules) and keep employees safe (OSHA rules).

No executive candiate is going to say in an interview, “Yes, I plan on bending the rules and doing unethical things. I plan on faking my expense reports and plagiarizing speeches… and SEC rules be damned!” But, you can observe how they behave in regular situations – restaurants and airplanes, included.

p.s. A secondary test would be to get the airline to deny the candiate's upgrade request and see how they respond. I've seen some pretty ugly executive freak outs, including the phrase “I'm NOT going to ride in the back of the bus” and “I'm never going to fly this airline again.” I'm not impressed by that type of leader, either. I get it, flying in the front of the plane is more comfortable and you might feel entitled to it, but there's no reason to act like a baby about sitting in coach for two hours.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. From Twitter:

    Eric Lussier -@Eric_M_Lussier
    @MarkGraban 100% agree with this and have commented before regarding the disrespect and sense of entitlement shown by this behavior.

  2. A wise friend of mine once told me “Who you are on a bad day is who you really are”.
    Anyone can fake it at an interview but to remain polite and graceful under pressure is the ultimate test.

  3. Great article and great test for future executives. It is so true about people out there who just want to test the flight attendants last nerve. When I see them on the flight I wonder would they follow instructions in an emergency or just go to the front of the line because of their importance. They often lack social grace, have a sense of entitlement and use no impulse control. I wonder how many sports participation trophies they had earned along the way?

  4. Love this post, Mark. Good job! I, too, get upgraded a lot and am still regularly shocked (but not surprised) by the arrogance of some of those around me.

    I had a recent conversation with my fav flight attendants @delta (shout out to San Diego-based Marcia Michaels (who’s hands down THE best flight attendant ever!), Eva & Judy) and they have found that “power down behavior” is a leading indicator of how high maintenance (read: “rude”) the customer will be. It’s never failed to reflect the person’s sense of self-importance.

    Now if only the degree of self-importance was a disqualifying attribute for leadership roles…

  5. The NY Times blog (no $ required?) had an article on this issue:


    I am not fearful that one executive iPhone or Kindle Fire is going to bring down a plane… but the one featured commenter shares my view that folks should not feel entitled to violate rules because they are special.

    Comment Link

    In part:

    No the real hazard here is our culture of “specialness”–the idea that rules don’t apply to all.

    All of these people whose parents told them they were exceptional and unique and the rules whatever they happen to be don’t apply to them absolutely need to be made an example of. Imagine for a moment that I decide the stop sign near my house is needless. I AM SPECIAL. I get to decide these things because the rules don’t apply to me.


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