Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Clueless Bosses

I came across this in BusinessWeek from Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins:

As for clueless bosses, I’d have to include Key Lay, Enron’s former CEO, in that category. Clueless is far worse than toxic, because at least with toxic you can begin to predict behaviors. With clueless, what you’d expect from a boss can vary widely from their actual behavior. Crooks are much easier to deal with than fools.

This took me back to one of the startups I was involved with. One of the CEOs was pretty clueless. It was a company with less than 40 people and he did not know what was going on with more than half the operations during any given time. One business line with less than 40 people! Sometimes he would catch up and be up-to-date on one team but behind 3 months in the other three divisions of the company.

We didn’t catch on initially because he was actually pretty good at covering up his cluelessness. During meetings he would focus on the topics he knew well or just pretend to listen on the other important conversations when he actually wasn’t. He was also adept at getting us to focus on topics he felt comfortable with by throwing tantrums or telling an amusing story. (In relation to Dan Wooldridge’s article The Boss from Hell, this person would be an “incompetent boss” with an additional factor of bad intent.)

The frustrating thing in dealing with this clueless CEO was that the means of knowledge were at his fingertips. He might have had ADD, but the topics he ignored in meetings were not incomprehensible. All our documents and notes were emailed to him and placed in an online repository. His worst characteristic was that he would actually get upset at people when he wanted certain information and accused people of being incompetent or lazy when everything was available at his fingertips.

Within a year of experiencing this CEO, I realized that when Ken Lay said he didn’t know what was happening at Enron, it was probably true. He was clueless. If this CEO of a small startup could be clueless, I realized others like him could have moved up the ladders of corporate America.

So how do you deal with such a CEO? Move for the board to remove the CEO? Walk away? Ask God for continued patience?

Once I realized the nature of the problem I tried to address it in a variety of ways (I tried an indirect approach, direct, through proxies, and finally confrontational approaches.) Nothing I tried made a difference.

Some colleagues said I hung in there too long. I don’t know; I tried to give it my best shot. I learned that some people just can’t or won’t change or improve. When the circumstances demand it, I think people have to do what Sherron Watkins did when she blew the whistle at Enron. This startup wasn’t that kind of thing. Eventually I just walked away.

Originally posted at InsideWork.

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