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The Ineffective Executive
By Simon Jackson

“It is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone – and especially any manager – who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, p.89

“I’m sorry but thieves fatefully flawed. I am not sure how many times I have had to say someone is sorting this with you, don’t waste my time on this any more, decision made!! Listen to what you are told, get the message this time and ensure the requirements of the business are listened to. Ifbthis goescwider I will be bombarded.” – Email from Project Executive Sponsor

Up to this point, I thought my relationship with the executive sponsor was reasonably healthy – honest, robust, tricky at times, but mostly effective. He had a deserved reputation as a randomizer – temperamental and short-tempered. I think he saw himself as “telling it like it is”. Problem was, usually only he saw it the same way and this was usually negative and aggressive. People were scared of him including other senior executives and colleagues, some of whom simply refused to deal with him.

As soon as I received the email I called him. I was calm – frightfully calm. The sort of calm I get when I’m blowing my top.

“There are times when it is useful to be able to look calm on the outside when you are seething underneath and, conversely, there are times when it helps to look really angry on the outside even though you are calm on the inside.” – James P Lewis, Team-Based Project Management, p.25

I reached his voicemail even though he’d only just sent the email; he was screening. I left a message in a calm, measured tone. I questioned the need for his email, raised my concern with the tone of it, said I found the nature of the communication offensive, told him I would escalate it to my management, and urged him to escalate any concerns he had with my management to my executive. He never called back. In fact, we never spoke of the issue again.

When I was in high school I used to walk to school past the house of an older kid. I knew him by sight but not by name – he was a few years ahead of me and taller and stronger. For some reason, he took to harassing me. With mounting dread I passed his house not knowing if he’d come out and start jostling or abusing me – scaring me despite my protestations to be left alone. I changed route once or twice but it added a lot to my journey.

One day as he was wrestling me trying to tear off my backpack, I managed to swivel round and throw a massive but ineffectual haymaker. As I’d never before thrown a punch in anger I missed by a long way. I am not a violent person – then and now I’ve never been in a physical fight. But I’d had enough of being bullied and feeling scared and I snapped. He never came near me again.

I don’t condone violence but in both the cases I stood up to a bully, he melted away. I wonder if we would have such a problem with bullying if more people would stand up for themselves and confront the bully? Not throwing haymakers, of course, but standing their ground and calling the bully’s bluff.

I did forward the email to my executive who were predictably vague and non-committal. They saw great opportunity (revenue) at the customer and knew of this fellow’s reputation. There was little appetite to act and they were happy to let me handle it. This is something to bear in mind when confronting bullies or other problems: do not expect support or understanding, even from victims. The bully or the problem exists for a reason – because no-one before has had the courage to do anything about it. You are unlikely to receive public support because people are too scared to rock the boat, fearful that the bully might turn his attention to them.

I circulated the email to the executive’s colleagues involved in the project outlining my understanding of the issue, the status, and my response. I flushed the issue out into the open for all to see; not in a vindictive or aggressive way, but sticking to the facts and inviting comment and feedback. I got none. There was veiled sympathy from people who had been similarly abused but no-one would declare their position publicly. Not that I asked for or needed it. The bully never talked to me in the same way again.

Shortly after this incident, the customer appointed an external consultant to manage their burgeoning program of work, of which my project was a part. Although I am less trustful of so-called gut instinct (really unconscious thought) as I get older, in this case I had a strong feeling the new executive was someone I could trust and work with. Unlike some of the executives I regularly dealt with, and in particular the project sponsor, the external consultant was effective, clear, and pleasant to deal with: calm, rational, precise. I briefed the pleasant executive in detail on progress and my impression of the environment.

After months battling with a difficult, short-sighted, and confused customer it was a relief to encounter someone who saw things similarly and was determined to improve. Exacerbating the customer’s limitations was the strong aroma of revenue – blood in the water for sales people and money hungry executives. My company was hardly covering itself in glory pursuing the money trail, jealous of our partner’s close association with the customer and obsessed with the idea of taking the work from them. There was also a substantial amount of paranoia about leaking information to our competitor (i.e. our partner).

In response, the sales team reflexively agreed with most things the ineffective executive said, even if they were contradictory, wrong, or impossible. This obsession with Yes created a tangle of commitments, contracts, and promises. A partially funded European junket for the ineffective executive and our sales team did little to enhance our reputation or increase our sales.

While this was going on, my project went ahead as best we could. Beyond my project, which we’d worked hard to scope, define, and document, no-one really knew what they were responsible for. Saying ‘Yes’ to everything tends to create this sort of uncertainty and tends to result in less revenue, not more.

Perhaps the strongest word in our vocabulary is No. It should be the default (internal) answer to any question a project manager is asked: Can we change this? No. Can you do that? No. We need to do this by that date! No. A manager who agrees to every change, or at least starts with a positive reaction to the request, rarely finishes anything. Piling change upon change quickly causes confusion and uncertainty, and ultimately leaves everyone unhappy.

By at least starting by denying a request for change, the manager gets some time to think about the trade-offs involved. For any action there is a reaction and on a running project that is scoped and budgeted, adding something means something else has to change; features have to be dropped, or productivity has to increase, people have to work more hours, or schedule has to be increased. This is reality. To deny it is unrealistic but common – particularly by salespeople and executives with little or no practical experience or touch.

Saying ‘No’ – especially to a customer – is rarely pleasant but is made easier if an investment has already been made building rapport and trust, being open about the realities of the project. I’ve always found saying No upfront is much easier than saying ‘Yes’ and later trying to explain why the project failed to deliver.

The pleasant executive understood this and much more. He saw the chaos being created by the ineffective executive: uncontrolled procurement process, rampant vendors, conflict between the business and IT, and general hubris. I didn’t envy him but he approached the task calmly, meticulously, and honestly. He offered support and encouragement, direction when we needed it, and worked hard behind the scenes to instil rigour and discipline in the practices and policies of the customer. This often meant limiting the freedoms the ineffective executive had assumed for himself.

I am not a big believer in rules as expressed in policies, regulations, operating manuals etc. There are far too many rules which are intended to control us – far more than we know about or care to read. If we read and tried to follow all the rules we are meant to observe I doubt we would do anything at all. Rules, process, and procedure have a diminishing rate of enforcement; the first rule is highly effective. It is easy to learn, apply, and enforce. Each subsequent rule is less effective than it’s predecessor, until it is no longer relevant to make more rules – they simply won’t or can’t be enforced. But there have to be some rules, just enough; even if only the Golden Rule.

The pleasant executive was working on many fronts to implement basic practices which help run a modern organization – procurement policy and practice, vendor management, contracts management, project governance and control. In such an immature environment he had to move slowly and deliberately and drag people with him. It was slow but he made progress and projects like mine started to get easier and more productive.

Then one day the ineffective executive decided to release the pleasant executive from his contract. There was apparently no warning, no discussion, no review with other stakeholders, and the release was amicable and immediate. The ineffective executive fingered another executive as the decision maker, a claim the second executive hotly and flatly denied later.

In this instance, the bully won the day. He always had the whip hand (positional power) and used it without hesitation even though he lacked the courage to do it under his own name. But over the long term, the effect of this individual on the organization was toxic and it remained embattled, mired in conflict and indirection with high staff turnover and good people seeking ways out.

There are many similar organizations. Although hard to tell at interview, if you have any concern that an organization is toxic start asking around. Network your way to someone who works inside and who can give you the real story about what goes on. Ignore what is said at interview, the company website, the vision and mission, and the HR spiel. If you are concerned ask someone who knows and is willing to speak freely.

Don’t work in a toxic organization unless you will have the power (executive control, hire and fire) and the courage to change it.

Simon Jackson is a project manager with many years of experience, particularly in IT. He is particularly interested in the leadership aspects of project management: leading teams to success through collaboration and effective processes. He has worked on many difficult and rescue projects and he would like to make the world a better place by educating decision makers about avoiding such situations. You can read more from Simon on his blog.

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