Out in the Cold – When the Boss is the Last to Know

It is not a very nice feeling to gradually realise that as a senior executive, and perhaps even worse as the General Manager, you are being kept out of the loop on important information or not being alerted to critical emerging issues. When the chilly winds of organisational excommunication begin to blow it’s time to light the fires of leadership.


It can be lonely out in the cold

 Whilst visiting my daughter in Ottawa, Canada during winter I noticed this lone figure trudging along on a grey, frozen landscape. I just had to record the moment. Now whenever I look at this scene it reminds me of more than one client I have helped in surviving the blizzard of isolation resulting from Board disfavour or executive team desertion. The former is an occupational hazard for many corporate heads. The latter is always hurtful and disappointing.

In such circumstances it is often tempting to offer the advice canvassed in my earlier post entitled “Fix it, Fit In or Flee – Responses to Change” (published 19.2.12). However, in these particular instances the more fitting response is to initially “confront it“.

In one case a General Manager found himself, after a fresh election, facing a majority of Board members who clearly had an agenda focused on his demise. There was no obvious reason for the antipathy as the finances of the organisation were healthy and its service provision efficient and achieving required benchmarks. The chill descended at the first Board meeting when it became apparent that a number of the new members shared a desire for a new strategic direction for the organisation, although not prepared to disclose openly what that might be .

Over subsequent weeks it became obvious that there were more discussion had between Board members, the Chairman and both Company executives and external parties, that the GM was not made aware of, in relation to the same issue. Approaches to the Chairman, who historically had an open and collaborative relationship with the GM, were met with evasiveness and his executive colleagues denied anything was up. Finally, the frustrating environment led the GM to take advice on how best to act. Importantly he had already decided that firm action was necessary. Now he needed to set some direction for that action.

The plan evolved quickly into some key strategies –

  • Intervene quickly to reinforce the authority of the GM with his executive team and demand their loyalty and disclosure of any strategic information they might possess.
  • Enter into frank and forthright discussion with the Chairman to clarify the Board’s proposed direction and emphasise the risks of the Board acting without first seeking and considering the advice of its GM.
  • Gain agreement of the Chairman to have the Company’s lawyer address the Board members on the limits of their authority and issues of good governance.
  • Examine thoroughly all the issues associated with the proposed change in strategy and brief the Board on all pro’s, con’s and options, offering to engage an independent evaluator or peer reviewer if there was any concern over the GM’s objectivity on the issue.
  • Subject the proposition to a full and formal debate amongst members to ensure all the issues were understood and properly resolved.
  • And finally to agree on the due process to be followed in future when new directions are proposed, to ensure a constructive partnership was restored between the Board and the GM.

The strategies worked and although it took some time for the chill to thaw between the GM and some of the Board members, the critical application of leadership at that crucial point once again demonstrated how imperative it is to bring to bear some clear thinking before reacting to provocative situations.


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