Crucial Conversations QA

Confronting a Time-Wasting CEO

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am one of three people on our executive team, and I am struggling with the excessive amount of time our CEO spends on outside issues. He spends about ten to fifteen percent of his time working on company issues and the rest on his outside activities. He has accepted positions on multiple boards that are not relevant to our company but provide networking and resume building opportunities for him.

He reports to a Board of Directors who doesn’t know of or understand these time-altering behavior patterns. Our small company is struggling in the recession and yet all the oars are not in the water. Other employees see this and question why.

What do I say to our CEO about his time-wasting behavior?

Lonely Exec

A Dear Lonely,

For the sake of my response, I’m going to take your statements at face value. I need to point this out in advance because I’m going to make a very strong suggestion for how you should handle this. If my assumptions are wrong, then my response may be excessive. Based on what you’ve written, I don’t think it is.

I’m going to assume the following:

1. Your CEO is paid a full salary.

2. He is truly working ten to fifteen percent of a full-time job (i.e., this number is not an exaggeration on your part).

3. He might be receiving compensation for some of the outside work—or at a minimum is receiving personal gain through networking.

4. Your board is a governance (not just an advisory) board. In other words, they are responsible to represent the shareholders by holding him accountable.

5. You have fiduciary responsibility as one of the executives.

If these statements are even largely true, then I have three crucial conversations and one piece of advice for you.

Crucial Conversation #1: You owe it to your boss to confront him about the enormous gap you see between a normal CEO’s level of engagement and his current performance. You need to do this somewhat tentatively to begin with because there is some possibility he has a special employment relationship with the board that you are unaware of. If that turns out to be true, then you will discuss your concerns about whether this arrangement is functional for the company or not. If there is no special arrangement, and as you suspect, the board does not know, then you must move to . . .

Crucial Conversation #2: You must let him know he is stealing from the company and that you have been an accomplice through your silence. Furthermore, you must inform him that you cannot continue as an accomplice. You would prefer that he raise the issue with the board and gain their approval for whatever work pattern he is willing to provide. If he does not, then you must move to . . .

Crucial Conversation #3: You must report this concern to the board. Since I don’t know your board, I don’t know if it would be safest to meet with the chair privately, another board member who is a confidant and would trust your views, or with the full board in session. You’ll have to decide based on what will get your data the best hearing.

Most people would never do this—but would either suffer in silence or just resign and blow the whistle after they leave. If you follow the order above, I believe you will hold yourself to a higher standard of loyalty and integrity. You will give your CEO the chance to restore his integrity, you will honor your loyalty to him, and you will restore the integrity you have lost through your silence. This is a much lonelier and more emotionally difficult path than the easier ways out—and that’s why I suggest making this choice requires impeccable character.

Finally, the advice. Obviously, this approach is fraught with risks. The CEO could turn against you and try to get you fired. The board could disbelieve your perspective (by the way, you had better have data when you approach them). They might believe you but feel they have to be loyal to the CEO (a weak but possible outcome). In any case, you will have left neutral ground forever when you start this series of conversations. So you should have a backup plan in place. It’s easier to feel confident jumping off the cliff if you’ve checked the water depth first. This is a matter of integrity. You need to take these steps. But give yourself enough time to prepare escape plans that protect your interests and those of your family as best you can.

I have not given tactical advice for the conversation. Please know that the statements I made above reflect the points you need to make in the crucial conversations—but they are not a “how to” for the conversation. Use all the skills we’ve described over time in this column—make it safe, lay out facts before tentatively sharing conclusions, and invite disagreement. If you follow those skills, you’ll give the CEO the best chance of understanding your legitimate concerns without taking personal offense. I’ve seen it done before. Practice, practice, practice in advance so you can approach this in a healthy way.

Please drop me a line to let me know what you do. I will be happy to respond to more specific requests for coaching if it will help you get through this most crucial conversation.