VIEWPOINT: When ambitious leaders vie for position you must know your people really well and act decisively, says Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, in this third in a series of articles for IEDP:
Mary-Ellen was one tough cookie – she’d had no choice. Always driven, hugely successful, she was the ‘go to guy’ when there was no real guys to go to. When the going got tough, and even the CEO and senior management cringed at confrontation. Who’d they call? Never in doubt, Mary-Ellen was in the frame for everything. She was the ultimate fixer.
But now there was trouble brewing. There was a new wannabe leader in the frame. The survivor of a failed merger, Anthea was the former chief-of-staff of the president of XYZ corp, whose day in the limelight had come and gone. But she wasn’t about to give up her powerbase all that easily.
They’d met briefly at a post-merger senior management ‘bonding’ session, hated each other on sight and were now in the position of vying for the affections and approval of the new man at the helm – CEO, Richard Smith. In the meeting rooms and corridors of power at HQ, rumours were rife. There was even betting on the outcome. The newly installed CEO couldn’t let this slide. He had to act FAST to reaffirm his reputation as a decisive decision-maker.
The action required now is, to make a considered decision (NOT a knee-jerk reaction), simply based on what’s best for the business and the people in it. The CEO doesn’t want people taking sides here: no time for that. Tackling a mega-people problem doesn’t call for finesse – it calls for a decision. Hours count, not days. New incumbent, Mr Smith has to ask himself some hard questions about Mary-Ellen and Anthea and just do it... It takes just THREE questions:
Question 1: Do they contribute? Are they a positive or a divisive force in the business, do they add value?
Answer: Mary-Ellen, despite her fearsome reputation, has the admiration of the entire workforce. Anthea is viewed by those who know her as an often prickly personality
Question 2: There’s a really BIG thing called loyalty - do they have it? Are they committed long-term?
Answer: Mary-Ellen is unquestionably loyal. Everything she does points to that. However, having spent time with her the new CEO reckons that Anthea has huge, unrealised ambitions. The question is, “If she was offered a better job outside the business would she leave?” The answer, on balance, has to be “yes.”
Question 3: Are they truly respected by the staff, never mind their reputation for toughness?
Answer: A quick set of confidential calls and a good knowledge of both Anthea and Mary-Ellen, convinces that when it comes to respect, business focus and loyalty, Mary-Ellen wins hands down.
The result? Anthea left that day. With her track record they’d pledged to find her other employment- and the pay-off helped too.
And the outcome? As a leader, CEO Smith’s reputation was not only intact but probably enhanced, and employees, knowing what the plan was, quickly moved on.
But why did Richard Smith choose Mary-Ellen over Anthea? Looked at it closely it wasn’t all that hard. From the outset it was clear that Mary-Ellen was just the more committed staff member. Loyal to a fault and fulfilled in her key role. She had done all she needed, she had nothing left to prove to herself. Anthea was an unfulfilled, ambitious person, who wasn’t going to add to what the business needed to grow and prosper.
Lesson 1: Always act FAST. Get the bad news over with and leave no time for resentment or recrimination to build.
Lesson 2: Get to know your people really, really well, and understand why they’re ambitious – what truly drives them; what their career goals are; their personal circumstances, and what colleagues think about them? It makes working out those decisions a whole lot easier.
Lesson 3: Never, ever let rumours start. Staff love rumours – they’re much more interesting than the truth!.. Fast action kills rumours – DEAD!
This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage directly with Rudi Plettinx here.