Leadership Dim Sum -
Meddling With Mediocrity, and
A Grudge From the Past

by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau

Meddling With Mediocrity

What do you do about someone who's just simply not right for the job? What if, in your heart of hearts, you really don’t have a lot of faith in, say, your CFO? You just know from experience that he’s missed the boat a number of times. But it’s not purely your call. You suspect that a couple of your colleagues on the leadership team feel the same way. But the CEO seems OK with the guy. And his heart is in the right place.

Things to think about: What can you do about mediocrity at the top? Should you share your concerns?

If you’re a member of the inner circle, you have a responsibility to your organization to air your concerns. The question is how. This is a tough one, because there are risks attendant with being a “whistle blower” or the accuser. It's even more complicated in this case, because you’re not revealing a specific wrongdoing.

You should probably move forward on the assumption that the person in question is being supported in their job, and that the CEO is indeed aware of their limitations, though he or she may not show it. And the noble course of action is to try to help the person succeed. (Not by doing their work for them; steer clear of that can of worms. But by providing information in a way you feel they best receive it, and by prompting questions, or concerns, that you feel they may have, but may not be able to articulate.)

Depending upon your role, and your relationship with the CEO, you could go as far as to talk with him about your concerns, trying not to “dis” the individual in your conversation. There’s nothing wrong with asking the CEO, around the time of a particular event, whether everything is really being handled in the right way.

In fact, however, it’s probably better to do so when the evidence of under-performance is closer to hand. Just remember, you walk a fine line in a case like this. You leave yourself open to question about your motives for questioning the other person’s ability. Rob’s father used to say, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

We know of a man who was brought into an organization as a regional head of human resources. (The company had three regional heads.) One of the other HR directors felt strongly that his appointment was a bad idea — that he was not suited to the job. She made no effort to hide her feelings; she didn’t try to help him succeed. She decided, essentially, that he was a goner from day one, and she treated him as such.

Truth was, the guy was a bad hire. He wasn’t happy in his work, and his skills were not a good fit for the company. But because she acted as judge, jury, and executioner, her colleagues and direct reports turned on her when he left, less than a year later. He really shouldn’t have been brought in to begin with. But she was blamed in part for his failure because other people in the organization felt she’d “set him up to fail.”

A Grudge From the Past

You’ve been tarred with an unfair brush. Another member of the inner circle tangled with you on an issue years ago – early in your careers – and he still carries a grudge.

You weren’t the instigator; it was your boss at the time who went after him. But there it is, and because he was “in” before you were, you’ve been put on the defensive.

You approached him recently to try to resolve the situation (again) – but he won’t hear of it. He thinks you’re just trying to undermine him, get him in trouble.

Things to think about: What if anything can be done? How does one forge a working relationship without trust? Should you enlist others to help you? To endorse you? To say to him: “He’s not so bad; give him a chance?” Should you approach the guy through text instead of in person? Would the method of communication make a difference?

Ask yourself if it’s necessary to resolve the “old issue,” or if you would be better off to rebuild trust by looking forward. (We cover rebuilding trust in detail in chapter 13 of our book, and you can get an overview of the concepts on our website.) And keep in mind that if you ask others to help you out, you run the risk of your request getting back to this guy, and annoying him even more.

About the best you can do is to appeal to him directly, asking flat out what it might take to bury the hatchet. But unless there is a need to force the issue and resolve the “cold war” you may be kind of stuck. Rob’s father also used to say, “it’s hard work to change a bigot.” And in fact, you may not be able to. At best you may be able to change the views of those around him.

Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau are the authors of The Trusted Leader (The Free Press, January 2003). More information on the book is available at http://www.thetrustedleader.com . Robert Galford is Managing Partner of the Center for Executive Development in Boston, and has taught executive education programs at Columbia, Kellogg and, most recently, Harvard. He is the co-author of The Trusted Advisor (with David H. Maister and Charles H. Green). He may be reached at rgalford@thetrustedleader.com . Anne Seibold Drapeau is Chief People Officer of Boston-based Digitas and has held management positions at Pepsi, J.P. Morgan, and FTD. She may be reached at adrapeau@thetrustedleader.com .

The Trusted Leader:
Bringing Out the Best in Your People and Your Company

by Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau
Free Press, January 2003

Many more articles in Creative Leadership I and II in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau. All rights reserved.

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