As an executive coach, I work mostly with CEOs, presidents and business owners. I work with my clients one-on-one and I am available to them whenever they need me.
As a result, some of the most honest calls I receive are the ones that come in at night or on the weekend. During these calls, all pretenses of the professional CEO role are gone and I get to hear the raw and unfiltered feelings these people are going through.
They are angry, frustrated, hurt, feeling betrayed, out of control – you name it. I hear things like, “I just want to fire everyone and start over,” or…”I’m going to take control of tomorrow’s meeting, let everyone know where I stand and demand performance!” or… “I’ve had it! I’m just going to sell the business. I can’t deal with this anymore!”
I’ve been there and I know exactly how they feel. But the truth is, being impulsive and exerting control is not going to solve the problem. In fact, it’s a pretty sure bet that doing so will only prolong a bad situation.
I remember on one of these calls, I had an angry, frustrated client tell me that one of his partners had taken an action that hadn’t been approved yet. In the CEO’s mind, the issue was still in the discussion phase. To make matters even worse, that action was not easily reversible.
As a result , the CEO felt sabotaged, cheated and taken advantage of. He also perceived the partner as opportunistic, as someone who really didn’t see the big picture or comprehend the significance of the situation the way the CEO did.
Of course, this was not the first time this particular partner had triggered these feelings. After telling me that he had had enough of this partner and just wished she would do as she was told, he felt the best thing to do was to take control of the subordinates and assume the role himself.
After we discussed the situation, the client asked me what I thought. I gave him the following feedback:
1. The fact that he called me before doing anything told me that he knew his initial reaction probably wasn’t the best response. And he was right. Sometimes it’s best to take a deep breath and call on a trusted advisor before proceeding, especially when emotions are running high.
2. Confront the conflict. I suggested that he meet with the partner with an impartial third party in attendance to help facilitate the meeting and keep the conversation objective. At this meeting, get everything out on the table: trust, transparency, agendas, feelings. If you really want to solve a problem, you can’t hide the details.
3. Resist the urge to take control. I asked if the CEO felt the need be in control in order to feel better. He acknowledged that, yes, this was the case. I asked him to think about if his “need for control” response was truly in the best interests of the individual and the organization. Here’s why: Most CEOs should be trying to spend most of their time working ON the business, not IN the business, or at least focusing their efforts on where they can be most effective within the business. In this case, would taking over his partner’s role move the CEO in the right or wrong direction as far as daily tasks? Would a high performing board be happy with the CEO taking over subordinates’ tasks? Or, would they be happier with the CEO finding other ways of adding shareholder value? What would he do with other partners if they were not performing at the level he wanted?
4. Be open to the other person’s perspective on the situation. Are misunderstandings a pattern? Why? Who owns what in these misunderstandings?
5. Take a look at patterns of communication with this person. Are their personalities similar or different? Do each of them need to work on finding alternative methods of communication to ensure that what is thought by one is understood by the other?
6. Is he, as the CEO, over-reacting? Why? What can he change in areas of trust and managing performance that can alleviate these reactions?
7. Take an honest look at the problem and start by looking in the mirror. The CEO should acknowledge his role in the situation, if any.
By now my client had calmed down considerably and we talked some more. I had a hunch that there was more going on so I probed a little deeper. I asked him, “Have you, as the leader of your company, been clear to your partners and managers about goals and strategy, directions and accountability? What are the goals? Short term returns? Long term strategic market penetration? Reorganization? Is it possible that conflicting directions and goals could be contributing to the current situation?”
There was silence on the phone for a moment or two and then I knew I had struck a nerve.
The client acknowledged that perhaps his inconsistent direction had contributed to the current situation.
He sighed and said that lately he had been stretched to the limit, working in so many different areas of the business that yes, his priorities did shift frequently. He just assumed that his partners and managers would follow his lead and act in accordance with his wishes. He could see now that wasn’t the case.
He also admitted that, as a result of our conversation, he could see that he had much more of a role in the situation than he initially wanted to believe. And most of it was a result of his past management practices – essentially, he was sleeping in the bed he had made. He decided to meet with the partner the very next day and asked me to be there with him.
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