How should I discuss problems with a respected colleague with my CEO?
January 29, 2015 5:47 PM   Subscribe

I have a 1:1 meeting pending with my CEO, and I'd like to discuss what I feel is the biggest impediment to our success: a single, very senior, very poisonous individual. I don't want this to be mistaken for a personal vendetta (it isn't), and I don't even need the person to be fired. I just want their poisonous behavior to stop.

The CEO has been with us for a few months, having taken the reins after we hit a rough patch. Since starting, the CEO has demonstrated a good understanding of our company's problems and opportunities from a market perspective, but sometimes oversimplifies and misdiagnoses the causes of internal conflicts. My relationship with the CEO is positive, but we are not yet close.

The poisonous colleague is one of the company's most senior employees. They are very abrasive personally, but are generally respected professionally because they work long hours, they were instrumental in building early versions of our products and they are very good at avoiding responsibility for their largest mistakes. I firmly believe that the company has outgrown this individual, and that we need to reduce or eliminate their influence if we're going to succeed.

To give an idea of how serious this problem is, their most recent mistake has put us in a situation where we must choose between halving our gross margin and disappointing many of our most important customers. As per usual, the poisonous individual has found a scapegoat.

How can I talk about this productively? It would be very easy for the CEO to misinterpret my concerns as petty professional rivalry. Such a misinterpretation would be disastrous for the company. However, not addressing the problem at all would be an act of gross cowardice on my part.
posted by grudgebgon to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Can we talk about x issue [not person]. It has been portrayed as being caused by [scapegoat] - but I really think that's not the root cause. Here's why I think that: [evidence]. How do you think we should go about getting to the bottom of this so that it doesn't recur?"
posted by blue_wardrobe at 5:54 PM on January 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


I would not do this. If you feel you must address 'opportunities for growth' or whatever businessy spin you want to put on, talk about facts and numbers and do not point fingers or mention this person by name. You don't know who the alliances are and you have no relationship with the CEO yourself.

However, not addressing the problem at all would be an act of gross cowardice on my part.

Bad judgment and abrasiveness aren't call-outs that hit the 'measures of courage' level.

but are generally respected professionally

Ooof, yeah, no, this is not a good idea.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:57 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you really feel like you have to bring this up, I'd use language like, "help me understand how I can better work with Horrible Person." It says that you don't work well together and doesnt necessarily call HP out.
posted by advicepig at 6:13 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is no good/safe/likely to achieve an outcome you like thing I can recommend, but blue_wardrobe probably has the closest thing to that.
posted by PMdixon at 6:19 PM on January 29, 2015


Now is not the time, you are not the messenger. Do you honestly think that a CEO doesn't know who the weak folks are? Give him time.

Use this time as intended, discuss your vision for your future for the company, draw a wonderful picture of your work utopia.

I used to be the one who stuck her neck out and it was NEVER appreciated. There may be all sorts of reasons this dinosaur is being kept on, he may own half the company for all you know.

No one is saying NEVER deal with this, just don't use your first serious meeting with a new CEO to do it. This is time for you to shine, not to dump a flaming bag of dog shit at his feet.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:28 PM on January 29, 2015 [33 favorites]


What does this person have to do with your scheduled meeting with the CEO?
posted by oceanjesse at 6:37 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hm, I'm middle level, not C-level, so maybe the politics is different in the "big leagues." I'd have to say, though: Oh hell no!

Not this early in your relationship. You need a big credibility and respect bank to do this. When you say, hey, I hate to talk about people negatively, but... the CEO needs to be able to think "that's true, grudgebgon totally never does, this must be serious" instead of "Yeah, I'll bet. Here we go. (eye roll)"

You might mention that you think [scapegoat] is getting a bad rap and doesn't deserve as much blame as they're getting for the situation, but don't get baited into elaborating. Just say you think that could stand to be looked at some more. Maybe you think that's a situation that might benefit from a more focused post-mortem "five whys" analysis to really see what happened and keep that from happening again.

The most I would say about the other person if asked is "eh, I'm not crazy about that person's management style, but hey, if it works well... *shrug*," -- implying that 'not working well' might be related to that person's management style. You don't have to pretend to be best friends.

You could also think of some organizational configuration that would leave the poisonous colleague very little cover, and then suggest that change. Some special project or role that would leave them with a very clearly defined "this is your responsibility and nobody else's" usually results in the incompetent outing themselves eventually. (Beware, you might get the role instead since it's your idea, so make sure it's something you could do better and then look good.)
posted by ctmf at 6:39 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thank you all for the sensible advice. I knew my planned agenda was wrong, but I struggled to understand why because it was so utterly and completely wrong. Thank you.
posted by grudgebgon at 6:57 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


You could also think of some organizational configuration that would leave the poisonous colleague very little cover, and then suggest that change. Some special project or role that would leave them with a very clearly defined "this is your responsibility and nobody else's" usually results in the incompetent outing themselves eventually. (Beware, you might get the role instead since it's your idea, so make sure it's something you could do better and then look good.)

I have a lot less experience in this sort of thing than many people who will reply, but i've successfully used this "supply enough rope and leave the rest to them" solution over and over and over. It's never done me wrong. I've even done it only a month or so in to a job.

Your best bet here is not to screw yourself over talking crap on them(which as ruthless bunny said, i've done, and it's never ended well). At most suggest your idea for a project/etc in which this person would be the sole one to take the fall, or even not.

You don't have to figure this out right now. You'll either have a lightning strike moment, or the situation will just offer itself up to you. But you need them to show that they're incompetent themselves, not have some point by point takedown. And be very very sure that even if it's fully their responsibility, there's no chance of them going "but it was grudgebgon's suggestion!" like some whiny younger sibling. You need to be very well far away enough from whatever explosion happens that you can cover it up with your thumb.
posted by emptythought at 7:04 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd worry less about strategy and center this all around what's best for your CEO. An incoming executive worth his or her salt will ideally (I know that's a weasel word) know how to sort the chaff out of complaints received.

The question, then, is how much confidence do you have in your CEO's capacity to sort the chaff--rather than be blinded by it.

I was in this position several years ago, as my partner is in one right now.

Me: The head of my org is brilliant, but also a bit vindictive, not the best at containing anger or separating her personal biases from her organizational acumen. The scapegoat took the blame and was (slowly) fired despite alarms being raised by me and I think one other staffer. The rest of our staff base--the cowards, in our shared parlance--said nothing and let it happen out of a recognition of our president's manner. I still seethe about this--I've been looking for a new workplace since this all went down (itself a slow process).

Partner: was hired to kinda sorta replace a senior, respected staff member who had kinda sorta gotten to comfortable with his own way of doing things. This had been causing organizational chaos, and the org had come to recognize this person as The Old, and my partner as The New (even though they're about the same age). My partner is a workaholic, and put up with The Old's shit for months--almost a year--before bringing it up in a performance evaluation. The conversation shifted within the org, since the CEO had come to understand the relative importance of contributions made by The Old and The New over a real, substantial period. The Old is being slowly phased out.

You're in a bind because you may not have yet had the luxury of a substantial amount of time with your CEO. You have the option of being as patient as possible while you build trust with the CEO, but even if you take that path there are smaller, direct statements you can make now--without innuendo or sugar-coating--that might plant a seed to help your CEO watch and understand your perspective. Some of the other comments here sound like that approach: plant that seed!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:10 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Agree that your very first meeting with the new CEO isn't the time for this. Focus on building your credibility and relationship with them first. With any luck, you'll get to a point where your input is requested or at least welcomed.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:21 PM on January 29, 2015


Do you report directly to the CEO? If not it may be best to bring up your concerns with the person you report to if you think you can safely do this without causing the same kind of problems that have been mentioned above. You may then be able to relieve your conscious and know that you had done what you could for now.

It has been my experience that CEO's and other executive level people hate it when employees bring issues straight to them and have gone over the heads of people below them. Not to mention what the people below the CEO think.
posted by Justin Case at 12:45 PM on January 30, 2015


I would not go farther than how Mr. Horrible has made it difficult for you to do your job. "I lost three months because of Mr. H's last minute change." Let the CEO connect the dots.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:57 PM on January 30, 2015


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