Sep 29 2006

Choose Voice, Part II

Choose Voice, Part II

One reader writes to me: 

I am a vice president at a startup that isn’t in great shape.  We have some customers and a product that is meeting some market needs, but we’re way off our plan and don’t show signs of changing our trajectory in a material way.  I disagree with the direction our CEO is taking things, which is ok, but more important, our CEO refuses to listen to me when I try to discuss and debate strategy with her.  One of our board members has asked me what I thought we should do.  I don’t want to be disloyal to our CEO, and I want to seem like a team player who rallies behind the decision even if I don’t agree with it, but at the same time, I feel strongly that we’re going the wrong way and don’t want to be associated with a failed strategy or failed company.  What do I do?

My response:

Honesty really and truly is the best policy.  Always.  It just depends how you go about expressing it.

I talked about this a little bit a few weeks back in my post on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.  Here are your options when you disagree with the system:  quit your job in protest (exit), express your opinions (voice), or suck it up and follow (loyalty).  I always say — choice voice.

If you and the CEO are at odds about the issues but she is being rational about it, you should try to encourage a broader, open debate with others.  Maybe not the whole board, maybe not the whole senior management team, but a smaller group.  Tell her that you are just concerned for the company’s future and feel like more rigorous conversation is required.  Do it in such a way that it’s her idea to call the meeting and lay out the options.  If the company is truly going sideways and she’s a rational being, she must be thinking about multiple options, even if she has an opinion about one of them.

Now, if the CEO isn’t being rational, you have a different challenge.  If that’s the case, and if you think she’s wrong, and if the company is going sideways, I’d say the likelihood of you staying as a long-term employee of that company with that CEO is low anyway, so it’s worth taking a little more risk. 

But I think you can do it in ways that mitigate your personal risk with the CEO.  One thing you could do is go to one board member and express your concern confidentially, tell the board member that he should force the CEO to call the same kind of open forum I described above.  Another thing you could do is to send an anonymous email to one or more board members expressing the same.  Another is to see how like-minded other senior managers are — and if lots of people agree with you, gang up and either stage an intervention with the CEO, or go as a group to the board.  And if the board just blindly backs the CEO without rigorous debate and laying out options, that should cause you to rethink where you work anyway.

UPDATED:  one executive coach who reads my blog just wrote in his $0.02:  The answer in my view is simple, which I should think you would prefer if it were your organization, you tell the CEO that you are going to the Board with your concerns and then if that does not trigger some more favorable process you do so, albeit, with the CEO’s knowledge.