When the CEO goes bad….what to do?

There have been a couple of incidents this week that have made me consider the question – what do you do when the CEO or boss goes bad? What are the tactics, plans and activities that you need to implement to be able to manage the impact of the senior person going way ‘off message’? It is by no means a simple thing, for underlying this is the power base that means as a communication professional the boss is the one that could easily fire you.

Two recent events have made me ponder this issue. Firstly, there were the comments from Princess Anne about eating horse meat. The Princess Royal is the president of the charity World Horse Welfare and whether she was taken out of context or not I am sure they would have preferred not to have to justify what she said. Having heard staff on Radio 4 they clearly were trying to make the best of the situation by trying to use it to start a debate about horse welfare and trying to provide a context. The second is reported in the Sunday newspapers (Sunday 17 November) and is about the activities of the former chairman of the Co-operative Bank. I won’t go into the details of that but his behaviour is certainly something that the organisation would not have wanted linked to it.

We all know that staff can get things wrong, go off the rails or behave unprofessionally. These are things that we have to face on a regular basis. The key is to highlight that the individual is being dealt with and that they have no place in the organisation. But this becomes more problematic when it involves senior staff. It is not a surprise that they can act unprofessionally as after all the CEO is still human, and they can certainly be found to go ‘off message’ creating difficulties.

So, as professional communicators what can we do to deal with the situation? Should we try to hide from it and hope it will go away? Should we confront the senior staff member? Do we need to take a different approach depending on the seniority of the employee?

I think fundamentally we need to approach it in the same way. When people behave inappropriately then we should deal with them, make sure that other employees know that behaviour is not acceptable and show there is no place for it in the organisation. It is essential that there is consistency around standards of acceptable behaviour no matter what industry you work in.

But when the senior person has gone ‘off message’ then we need to consider what they were saying and why. If it was exposing wrongdoing or some form of whistle-blowing then it has to be supported. Sometimes though the values of the boss start to move away from the values of the organisation. In those cases we have to analyse whether this is a positive move forward for the organisation or a fundamental undermining of what is at its core.

The key role in all this for the communication professional is that they are able to discuss the situation honestly and openly with the right people. They should have the relationships that allow them to raise concerns, issues and make suggestions on moving forward. But they also need the skills of negotiating, influencing and diplomacy to be able to do this in the right way.

The question for now is do you have the right skills and the right work relationships that mean you could deal with a CEO issue. If not then perhaps it is something to develop for your future.

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