New CEO Wreaking Havoc? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I run a compliance and risk group for a large regional credit union. We have a new CEO—I’ll call him “K.” K was our organization’s CFO for several years before he was named CEO, so I know him well. We have always had a good relationship.

K has been in the CEO position about nine months now, and things are in total chaos. He throws out ultimatums that he subsequently forgets about. He moved an entire HR function to marketing in a move that has mystified everyone—especially the head of marketing, who has zero HR experience. A couple of our HR leaders resigned in protest.

Several big initiatives that are supposed to be collaborations between finance, HR, and my department are at a standstill because no one knows who is in charge of what. Every day is a new fire drill with critical tasks that either have been done incorrectly or simply didn’t get done.

Every time I meet with K, he adds entire functions to my group with no extra headcount. My people are already maxed out. To get extra heads, I am supposed to make a business case with full financial scenario plans. It is not my strength to do that kind of thing, and it takes me hours.

In the past, K always trusted my judgment when I needed more help, but now he just puts roadblocks in my way. I am behind on critical deadlines and my people are behind because they have been given too much to do. K only finds fault, and routinely spouts variations on “someone could lose their job over this mess-up.” In the meantime, every time he catches me in my office working late, he tells me I work too hard and I should go home. How can I tell him I could stop working so hard if he stopped wreaking havoc?

I am barely staying afloat here. Help?

At Wits’ End


Dear At Wits’ End,

Well, this sounds stressful. I’m sorry.

Here is the thing. Your CEO probably assumes his executive team will push back on him. He is depending on you to tell him when you can do no more. So you have to tell him. If he insists and is unreasonable, then do what you can. But the more you suffer in silence, the less he knows.

You simply have to stand up for yourself. And your team.

He used to trust your judgment. I think it is fair to remind him of that. Tell him you need help now and don’t have time to build extensive business cases for each position request. Do a sticky note calculation of the cost of being understaffed—including having to replace you. Be kind and clear, but speak up. It’s time.

In terms of getting clarity with your peers about who is in charge of what, you have a classic case of everyone being accountable—which means no one is really paying attention. I suggest you meet with your fellow leaders and hash out exactly who is in charge of what. That isn’t really your CEO’s job, so you guys need to get it together.

There is an oldie but goodie management tool called a RACI Matrix—the letters stand for responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. You can use this model to think through and assign exactly where the buck stops on any given project, who is held accountable for what tasks and deliverables, who needs to be consulted or tapped for parts and pieces, and who needs to be kept informed of any changes or developments. It seems glaringly obvious, but when you start getting into the nitty gritty it becomes clear that no one person sees it the way the others do. This is a way to have everyone—literally—get on the same page.

It would be a good idea to have someone facilitate who really knows what they are doing; a person from learning and development or training, or an outside consultant. If you can’t find someone, you may need to do it yourself or ask one of your counterparts. However you do it, driving for role clarity will help you with your stress level.

It sounds as strange as can be that HR was moved to marketing. This is not a common experiment as far as I can tell, and I am working in multiple organizations at any given time. I am flummoxed by it and will have to get back to you after I ask around a little. I’d love to hear what readers have to say in the comments if they have any insight on that one.

If you hadn’t had a good relationship with your CEO before, I would be more worried for you. But you did—and if you put yourself in his shoes, you might see that he really is depending on his executive team to keep him from messing things up too badly his first year. Make sure he knows you have his best interests at heart, but be clear that things can’t go on the way they have been going. In the worst case scenario, you still have a board you can go to, presumably; but I hope it won’t come to that.

This is a call for you to step up as an executive leader. It requires strength, courage, and grit. There is a lot to lose here, not the least of which is your sanity. But if not you, who?

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

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.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

4 thoughts on “New CEO Wreaking Havoc? Ask Madeleine

    • Hi CFO – Every single column comes from a real life scenario. I honestly can’t make these up….

  1. Hi Madeleine,

    The shuffling of HR to Marketing is an odd one. I have not seen this alignment before, however have seen similar moves when a CEO has felt that combining enabling functions together creates some sort of synergy or improvement. A flawed concept and failure point in reality. Units such as HR, Marketing, Compliance and similar function best when there is autonomy and points of separation from the organisation. However, this also assumes that the leaders of each of these functions are competent and confident enough to create their own space and opportunities within the senior leadership team and within their own teams. This is often not the case without the politics and fears driving behaviours, rather than effective business inputs and decision-making.

    The other point is that accounting and finances are often referred to as the core and language of business. This may well be the case, however this implies that the leader of these functions i.e. the CFO is then naturally placed to become the CEO. In my experience, this is flawed…not always, but often. Similarly, the SME in a role does not make the best leader of the team performing these roles in many cases.

    A tough situation for ‘Wits-end’ however as you pointed out, it is time for clarity and ensuring the CFO is crystal clear what impact this is having.


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