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CEOs are not being told the truth about top business issues. The reason is simple: no employee wants to be the messenger who is shot. Unfortunately, it is expensive to withhold the truth from the CEO – mistakes spread like a virus through the corporation. One of the most malicious viruses is the senior, incompetent manager who leads an enchanted life.
Don't cross an incompetent employee
A former customer recently said to me, “Beware of crossing an incompetent employee. Each of these people survived because they served a purpose for another. “That comment got me to ponder the underlying reasons behind having a CEO to protect an employee who is well known to be incompetent at best and harmful at worst.
One reason is obvious – a dirty secret. For example, the incompetent employee may be aware of financial misdeeds. Explicitly or implicitly, silence can pay off. What could the person do to you if they are able to hold that leverage on their CEO?
Related: 4 Ways Effective Leaders Deal With Incompetent People
The incompetent employee could be the CEO's "safety blanket".
A few years ago I advised a distressed company. One member of the management team was clearly not prepared for his position. I asked his colleague on the executive team if he'd discussed the issue with the CEO. The colleague got upset and replied that he had brought up the problem, but the CEO had reacted with such hostility that he feared going back on the subject.
Confident in my relationship with the CEO, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I was polite but firm and persuasive. The CEO listened carefully and assured me that he would consider taking action. As I was leaving his office, the manager in question came in and asked if he could bring the CEO's lunch. When I saw the CEO's face, I knew my mission had failed. He was suddenly more relaxed and comfortable. The CEO didn't need his employee to bring him lunch, but he needed him for comfort and safety. The manager had been with him for years, was dedicated to him, was totally dependent on him, and the manager was safe.
I later extrapolated from this incident and others I witnessed another reason why many incompetent executives are protected by CEOs. These executives have no power base in the company – nobody respects them. A leader who is wholeheartedly committed to her patron will always place her bids, providing her boss with a reliable source of support and predictability.
Related Topics: 3 Signs That Performance Management Issues Are Managers, Not Employees
The benefit to the CEO is a cancer to the organization
However, the advantage that the executive offers is a cancer for the organization: the incompetent employee serves the CEO, not the company. The CEO gives the employee leeway and benefits that others are denied. This different treatment and these inconsistent standards undermine the trust of other employees – trust that is vital if they are expected to reach their highest potential.
According to a Harvard Business Review article by Ron Ashkenas, subordinates react with fear and sycophancy "when the boss is insecure or moody". To keep the executive happy, the CEO can even allow them to meddle in areas that are beyond their nominal capabilities. For reasons of self-preservation, other employees fear to challenge the manager or confront the CEO, so that the virus spreads throughout the company.
CEOs tend to blame external factors for their failures, such as the coming together of bad luck (the "perfect storm"), unreasonable lenders, the economy, etc. (I've heard them all). However, CEOs should realize that the mistake often lies not in the stars, but in itself. This is a difficult message for them, but a company's success depends on the CEO's willingness to act responsibly.
A CEO can solve the problem
It is difficult for people to recognize their flaws and weaknesses. Recognizing the "security blanket" problem and taking the necessary steps is a challenge for a CEO. However, there are clear signs of trouble if the CEO is not willingly blind: The "security blanket" employee will lack the respect of his colleagues and those with whom he interacts.
Let's go deeper. What about a CEO who lacks that self-esteem and ignores the signs? While personal growth would be ideal, it is not a programmatic solution. I suggest that the solution could be found by addressing the root of the problem – the CEO's isolation and insecurity. The underlying problem can be overcome through a trustworthy soundboard.
Related: What Kind of Leader Are You Based on Your Emotional Intelligence?
An active, independent board would be best, but a confident advisor could take on the role. As Bill George explains in his article "Why Leaders Lose Their Paths", "Reliable mentors are completely honest and direct with us, defining reality and developing action plans." Neither the board of directors nor the consultant should be employees or “yes men”. You have to tell the CEO what they do not tolerate from their employees and what they hide from themselves.
Ultimately, however, no method will be successful if the CEO is not committed to the ultimate good of the company and has at least a minimal level of self-esteem. The CEO must listen to his soundboard, openly examine his motivations and fears, and then take the necessary steps to combat the virus lurking in his moldy security blanket.