I am a VP of supply chain in a vast multi-billion dollar global consumer products company.
Our CEO is really smart—a true visionary—and I have a great relationship with him. We always have good conversations when we are together. He works out of the European headquarters while my division is in the US, so my colleagues and I don’t see him much.
Here is the problem: the CEO is wildly erratic.
As a leadership team we make decisions about our big strategic plans, with full budgets and timelines for execution, and everything is signed off on by the CEO.
He comes for a visit and starts challenging our timelines and everybody freaks out. We pull together emergency meetings to revise everything, which forces our manufacturers to rush and escalates costs. My poor employees are driven to the brink working extra long hours. Marketing has to go into hyper drive where everyone starts running around like Chicken Little when the sky is falling.
Not a single one of my peers is willing to stand with me on pushing back against the CEO, essentially saying, “We made the plans, you signed off on them, and we were going along just fine until you came crashing in here and blew everything up. What’s up with that?”
They all basically get behind the CEO, repeating his rationale for the changes as if it actually makes sense, which it never really does. This has happened a couple of times and it is making me feel crazy. It all seems to be needless drama and waste to me and I can’t tolerate it. I love the organization and was planning to work hard for a promotion to EVP but I am seriously rethinking that now.
How can I affect change in this situation without risking my job? Or should I just keep going along with it?
Dear Made Crazy,
I once coached a CEO who behaved this way. Sometimes he did it because of changes in the market that he could feel but couldn’t really explain. Other times he did it because he thought a division was getting complacent and needed to have a fire lit under them. Once he proposed something completely irrational to see who would push back on him, just to find out how many yes men he really had. (It turned out he had a lot, and it was an important data point for him.) I find it hard to believe that a CEO whom you experience as an intelligent visionary, who is doing a good job growing such a huge complex organization, is actually erratic. I suspect he has a plan and is doing what he is doing on purpose.
It sounds like the cycle of crazy is causing you extreme stress, and you and I both know that kind of stress isn’t good for your health. Putting up with things you can’t tolerate is an enormous energy drain. So I don’t think just going along with it is a viable solution for you. But you don’t want to put your job in jeopardy, either—you just can’t go calling out the head person in front of others. Here’s a thought: what if you were to arrange a private chat with the CEO and ask him about it? It appears you have enough of a relationship with him that you could do this. Ask politely—simply explain what you observe, without blame or judgment, and ask him to help you understand his angle on it.
He may not be aware of the havoc he is wreaking, in which case it would be good for him to know. Or maybe he does know and doesn’t care. Or maybe he is entertaining himself, or punishing your whole team for not having the guts to push back. You will no doubt get some insight into his thought process and he might even appreciate your asking. Whatever you find out will help you anticipate future bouts of crazy and even plan for it so you aren’t constantly caught off guard.
Perhaps the conversation won’t go well or you won’t like what you hear—for example, that your CEO is a sociopath who enjoys seeing people suffer. Or perhaps you’ll learn something new and interesting about your CEO’s leadership style. In any case, you will probably get the information you need to make a decision about your future.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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