WAR STORIES FOR EXECUTIVES is a new series of articles discussing ominous experiences that have been revealed in coaching sessions by higher level executives – lessons we can all learn from.
Working with different CAs(SA) is, for me, indeed an honour. I meet great people and, as a consequence, am given the opportunity to share in their growth, development and change.
What saddens me is how senior executives can mindlessly mess things up – and in the process, they marr the careers of unsuspecting very talented young people.
I have a client who is undoubtedly a superior quality CA. He is bright, confident and creative – great raw material for a future executive CEO.
Why not a CFO?
Well it’s not too difficult to see his ability to pick up on opportunity – he is well informed and keeps himself on the cutting-edge by reading business- related magazines, websites and news articles.
He nearly totally destroyed his credibility recently. And this happened in such an unforgivable way. When he shared his experience, I was angry. I was upset that competent executives are capable of setting good people up to fail. I was also relieved that my client had the good sense to seek a coaching intervention to help him out of a predictably disastrous situation.
Here is what happened.
My client (let’s call him David) was an exceptionally competent head office trouble-shooter. A sharp cookie, with a no-nonsense type of personality, David worked in very large conglomerate where he was used successfully, by the group CFO, to conduct high-level investigations throughout the company.
As part of a career advancement process, David was given the opportunity to take on the role of a divisional CFO.
On his first day, he already began to notice things that irritated his sense of impeccability.When he called his new team together, he found a reticence that annoyed him. Being a highly competent person, he was immediately irritated by the lackadaisical attitude that he experienced from his senior staff.
The off-hand and evasive approach from his direct reports did not hamper him – he just went straight over their heads and dealt directly with the staff on matters that needed attention.
The CEO of the division was also playing cagey. David found this disruptive. And he responded in kind. He kept noticing things that revealed a poorly-run operation and continuously pointed out areas where basic discipline was sorely lacking.
It didn’t take long for matters to hit the proverbial fan. Before he knew it, he was facing a massive revolt. His staff had reported him to the CEO and he found the HR Director in his office accusing him of disruptive and ineffective management.
It was at this point that David came to see me. He was extremely frustrated by the state of the business and, more so, by the lack of co-operation from the senior executive.
And so we started to do a little post-mortem. The following emerged:
- The Group CFO had not briefed the CEO on David’s appointment. He was simply instructed to make office space available and was told that David would be starting within a few days. In other words, the CEO was not given the choice of appointing his most senior executive.
- As a consequence, David’s finance managers had not been informed either.Accordingly, when he arrived, they were unaware of his role or even whether they reported to him.
- David was given no clear job description. He was simply told to take up the role of the CFO and get on with it.
- David had no previous experience working with teams. At head office, he had largely worked alone under the direct authority of the group CFO. Wherever he went, he arrived under the direct authority of the CFO – he was not questioned about his purpose and people followed his instructions.
Poor David had essentially been chucked into a snake pit. And he was doomed to fail right from the start.
Now, in my experience in corporate structures, I’ve seen this type of ‘strategy’ applied before. A call is made at Exco level to tighten up the controls in a particular division. They then send in a novice – without properly briefing the divisional head – and all hell breaks loose!
The thing is that Exco is not stupid enough to throw in a new executive without following protocol. It is the executing executive, for whatever reason, who institutes this unnecessary disruption.
Following protocol would have looked like this:
- The Divisional CEO should have been advised that there were issues in his domain that Exco believed required tighter controls.
- David should have been advised that he clearly reported to the Divisional CEO on all matters and that he needed to work closely with him. He should also have been instructed that, initially, he should consult the CEO on any issue that he was concerned about, before implementation, so that the CEO could confirm that he was in agreement.
- The CEO would need to advise his top team that a new CFO was joining and that the intention was to tighten up on controls. This process would benefit the business as a whole and their co-operation would be appreciated.
- The CEO would also need to specifically call the finance team together and explainthat a new CFO would be joining and that he reported directly to him. Their co-operation with this process was essential.
- David would spend the first week, with the CEO, identifying areas of concern that needed urgent attention. Thereafter they would meet on a weekly basis to assess and discuss further action.
You may consider this process to be long-winded and tedious but it is an effective method for getting on board with the team. By using this process, David would have found it much easier to get the co-operation he required – especially if his suggestions were intelligent and pertinent to the business. He could only really know that if he had had the opportunity to check out his observations with the CEO.
Here are a couple of examples that were not checked out and resulted in unnecessary disharmony:
- On his first day, David noticed that a huge amount of overtime was being expended at the warehouse. He spent hours analysing the consequences and badgering the HR staff. His actions created a sense of insecurity among the workers. Had he discussed it with the CEO before approaching other managers , he would have discovered that the business succeeded because its service levels were substantially higher than the competition and this was due to the extra time that employees put in over the busy periods.
- David found the attitude of the staff to be low-key. This irritated him. He proceeded to get demanding and harsh with his direct reports. He failed to realize that the financial accounts were presented correctly, and on time, each month. The division was functional and David failed to acknowledge this. This created resentment and push-back. What David could have done was commented on the effectiveness getting the accounts out on time and encouraged them to find ways to improve the systems. Ideas would be welcome and his function, as CFO, was to ensure that there were adequate resources to ensure that the changes were properly executed.
- On a visit to one of the branches, David noticed a counter staff member being rude and abrupt with customers. He berated the staff member and, in the process, upset the branch manager and annoyed the CEO. David subsequently found out that the customer was seriously in arrears and was being worked out of the system.
The moral of the story?
Think carefully and proceed cautiously before tearing into the people and the systems like a bull in a china shop! And remember a golden rule. The more you follow protocol the more effective you are likely to be.
Failure to apply this principle could leave you out in the cold with other executives and staff sabotaging your good intentions.