Don’t Feel You Should Have to Provide Direction to a Well-Paid Senior Executive? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the CEO of a small but rapidly growing global employee relocation services organization. It is a complicated business. One of the complexities is that employment laws are different in every country and they change constantly.

Our chief legal counsel is very talented and business savvy. But when we are trying to land new business, when time is of the essence, she never seems to be able to review contracts in a timely manner. She has the largest team by far on the cost side of the business and she doesn’t delegate well. When she thinks her people are overwhelmed she takes over their tasks, which I think is ridiculous because she has her own very critical time sensitive work that needs tending to. My top salespeople get frustrated and call me and then I have to call her out, which creates a lot of tension.

I want to talk to her about this but I am stuck. I just don’t think someone at her level (not to mention her salary) should need her CEO to talk to her about how she is managing her time.

Replacing her is not an attractive proposition. This is a highly specialized industry and she does know a lot. When she actually focuses, she is brilliant and has helped us avoid a lot of challenges. But something must change. Thoughts?

Sick of Babysitting


Dear Sick of Babysitting,

This does sound frustrating, but you have everything you need to rectify this situation.

One obstacle you can clear easily is your own attitude, which sounds roughly like: “I shouldn’t have to provide direction to someone this senior who is so well paid.” You are not alone. This mindset is pervasive. I hear it all day long—and I get it, I really do. But it is the natural result of the fact that people tend to be promoted because they are smart, hardworking, and technically excellent in their area of expertise—not because they are good managers or particularly talented businesspeople.

You are the CEO and it is your responsibility to make sure each person on your executive team:

  1.  is crystal clear on their priorities, and
  2. demonstrates that they have arranged what they focus on and how they allocate their resources (time, people, budget) in ways that are aligned with those priorities.

This essentially bypasses any confusion about what senior level, highly compensated employees should or should not be able to do. If such people are not doing what you think they should be doing, in the way you want it done and in the proper time frame, it is almost always because they either don’t understand the priorities (or don’t think they are important), they disagree with your priorities, or they simply don’t know how.

If the situation you describe continues, you can ask these branching questions:

  • “Are the priorities clear?”
    • If the answer is no, repeat them. If it is yes, then ask:
  • “Do you disagree with these priorities?”
    •  If yes, listen carefully, discuss, and find some middle ground. If no, then ask:
  • “Do you need some help with figuring out how to align with them?”
    • If no, great, you can expect to see specific changes and you can brainstorm ways to track accountability for these changes. If yes, brainstorm what would be most helpful.

If it seems she can’t figure it out and does need some help, you can provide her with training or a coach or spend a little time with her yourself.

All this needs to be done without any blame or judgment on your part, so you will probably have to practice some self-regulation. It will help if you can convince yourself of the fundamental truth that just because you think someone should know something doesn’t mean they will.

From what you shared, it seems that your CLC’s priority is taking care of her own people, which is admirable, but serving her internal customers should be at least equally as important.

This plan assumes that the two of you have a decent relationship and that she will feel safe enough to tell you the truth. If you don’t think that will be the case, you may want to look at the possibility that you have built a culture of fear, and your direct executive team has stopped challenging you. This would mean you have a bigger problem: you have surrounded yourself with yes-men and yes-women and are flying blind. Let’s follow up on that if you think it might be true.

To put it in a nutshell, get over yourself and help out your legal eagle.

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.

One thought on “Don’t Feel You Should Have to Provide Direction to a Well-Paid Senior Executive? Ask Madeleine

  1. Hi Madeleine,

    Another excellent question with an even better response. I also hear similar comments during coaching sessions and find it interesting that this type of statement implies it is someone else’s responsibility for assisting leaders when there are gaps. The frustration sits with the CEO, however the avoidance behaviour suggests this gap should just be closed automatically. Or worse, shouldn’t exist in the first place. This is a case of owning your role…for both parties, however, as we know it is a fallacy to think all people, no matter the level, don’t require assistance with their development. A CEO’s key role is to make sure these types of issues are identified and owned – a responsibility for all.

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