C-Suite Smackdown: When Your Top Execs Can’t Get Along
Every now and then the wheels shoot off.
I was working as a C-suite consultant for a company that I had previously completed a turnaround for. In my turnaround role I assumed the leadership position while they recruited a new CEO. A few months later the new CEO requested that I begin a coaching process with him and two of his direct reports. His subordinates had gotten into an argument in the hallway which was overheard by the administrative staff. This had become a fairly routine problem between them. He asked me to come in and "referee." I asked a few questions and agreed to call each of them. After I spoke with them I called him back and began to coach him on the solution. Still, he requested that I come in to do the coaching. So I asked that all three attend.
In the meeting I asked each of them to tell me in their own words why we were there. They all provided a consistent answer that it was to address their conflict and why they weren't getting along. This was simply wrong. So I asked a very simple question. What started this? The CFO was concerned about a liability issue relating to enrollments on the 401(k) plan. The COO had the responsibility of HR and thus 401(k) enrollment.
I went to the dry erase board and drew three boxes with their original reasons in each box. Then drew a triangle with the business issue of "401k enrollment" and a line from each of their responses. I did a quick calculation of the man hours up to this point and the total cost, including the brief hallway exchange, the meeting each one had with the CEO, his call to me and finally our meeting with all man hours included. It was a pretty big number. My concern was that their personal feeling toward each other and the conflict became the issue they focused on but they failed to realize it was a symptom of the business issue and we had wasted valuable resources chasing the wrong problem.
Ultimately I shared with them that we do not need to get along to do our jobs but it makes it much easier. Conflict is a time and money waster that needs to be nipped in the bud quickly. While this exercise was a little embarrassing it put an end to petty bickering.
Sometimes people just don't get along. If it precludes them from being productive there should be serious consequences. Don't get bogged down being a kindergarten cop. I am not ignoring that the CFO needed to improve his communication methods and told him as much. I also told the COO that he needed to check his ego.
There are a number of reasons for conflict and different solutions to address them. Look for the root cause. But remember some conflict is healthy. When you can honestly debate differing views on business and then come to a resolution then conflict has played a valuable role. But that's a story for another time.
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