One CEO's Conundrum 

Scale“There are times that I wonder how to balance the needs of the organization with compassion.” My client sat pondering the issue for a moment then continued, “But then that is the responsibility of the CEO.” Jayne (not her real name) was right. There are few positions that juxtapose organizational and individual needs like that of the CEO. Everything hinges on the CEO’s ability to support the dynamic tension between the needs of the organization and the needs of all the stake holders – in this case a key employee. Jayne runs a 30 million dollar operation in senior life care with 300 employees. She follows a CEO whose style can best be described as laissez-faire. The outgoing CEO neither had the emotional intelligence nor the drive to pull together a workable executive team. He focused on his own strengths and interpersonal forcefulness to build himself a legacy and push things through the system. Effective?  Yes, it got the things done that were important to his legacy. Healthy? No. As a result, Jayne is working through her executive team replacing toxic people with healthy ones and literally resetting the organization from the chaos left in the absence of the kingpin to a healthy team that knows what the organization needs and has the values and skills to get it there.  One of Jayne's executive team (a VP) is struggling.

“She told me the other day that I intimidate her, I am not sure I feel bad about that,” Jayne said.

“Apparently your VP wanted you to feel bad about it?” I queried.

“Yes, that was the clear message – in her words I have ruined her life by demanding performance proper to her level of employment.” Jayne paused. “The VP said, ‘I can’t even get dressed in the morning without wondering if Jayne will approve of my wardrobe – I am not sure I will ever win your approval.”  Jayne locked eyes with me for a moment and said, “I have never said I disapprove of her wardrobe or of her as a person. She said I was killing her personality. She is right on one hand I do disapprove of her lack of performance.” Jayne’s tone changed as she turned to face me.

“I understand holding people to a change in performance.” Jane began. “But how do I hold them accountable for their personality?”

I could tell the question troubled her. I suggested, “Perhaps it is your choice of vocabulary that has you stymied. Your VP can’t change her personality and in fact, that is not the issue. The issue is behavior and she can change behavior.”

“Oh, that helps,” Jayne said.

The VP, like many challenging employees, sought to blame something external to herself (the CEO) for the consequences of her own behaviors. The fact is that concern on the part of the VP about her job is right. She should consider whether she wants to grow her capacity by modifying her behavior or look for job with less responsibility somewhere elsewhere.

On writing on the leadership of George Washington, Richard Brookhiser observed, “Problems, and a leader’s solutions to them, consist of ideas, forces, and facts of life. But they are always accompanied by, or incarnated in, people. Judging people accurately and managing them well can make the difference between success and failure.[1]

When leaders avoid the discomfort associated with addressing problems the result is that they only transfer conflict (the evidence of problems) to larger groups of people in the organization they serve.  This transfer has a cascading effect that disrupts large segments of the organization’s performance. This contributes to employee angst and job misery more than anything else in organizational life.

How do you work through conflict in the organization you lead?  Judging people accurately includes the awareness of their uniqueness and their stress points. Any leader’s job not only includes helping others work at their peak skills but also of performing in their most constructive behaviors.  Hold people, and yourself, accountable for both performance and behavior and watch your people become the high performing team you always wanted to see.

[1] Richard Brookhiser. George Washington on Leadership. (New York, NY: MJF Books, 2008), 83.