Is There a “Problem Executive” in Your Midst?

We’re often asked to coach an executive who is demonstrating some behavior that others perceive as a problem, but who also contributes significant value to the organization.  For example, he may be interpersonally abrasive, micro-managing, or unable to execute on a vision. The boss or HR manager will ask, “How do we get this person to accept the need to change?” “How do we get him to successfully make change in these problem behaviors?”Yes, of course, in many such circumstances such an individual can change. Coaching can help by giving him insight into how his behavior affects others and impedes the outcomes he cares about, by helping him understand and challenge the underlying assumptions that drive the behavior, and by supporting him in finding structural solutions to compensate for limits that he may never overcome.
But, these days, when “stakeholders” (those surrounding the exec, including bosses and HR managers) want to hand me a problem exec, I’m more likely to be concerned about the situation surrounding the exec than about the exec himself. I no longer accept the definition of the problem as residing entirely in the exec and his style, and I try to broaden the lens to include the entire system including those stakeholders. They may unconsciously collude to define the problem as residing in the exec, which allows them to avoid looking at their own part in the problem. If we don’t look at that system of stakeholders, just “fixing” the problem exec is not likely to produce much improvement.  (Psychologists refer to this as the “identified patient” problem.)
Here are some broader issues that a “problem executive” can be a symptom of.
Issue 1 – Stakeholders may not have been authentic with the exec about their concerns and perceptions, and about their expectations for different behavior. Perhaps they’ve broached the topic “softly” (vaguely or indirectly), but haven’t been explicit about what behaviors are unacceptable, what different behaviors they need to see, and the consequences of continuing those behaviors. As a result, the executive may be out of touch with the negative impact of his behavior. The stakeholders may be hoping an external coach will do the performance management, expectation setting, and coaching that they don’t want to deal with.  The broader issue, then, is indirect communication around performance and expectations. If the problem exec isn’t getting direct feedback, then it’s likely that others aren’t, either.
Issue 2 – The exec has a style that isn’t consistent with the typical leadership profile in the organization, thus others say he doesn’t “fit the culture.” Another way to look at this is that he brings complementary strengths that aren’t valued in the organization. For example, the visionary leader who can’t execute is living in an organization with an extremely data-driven culture, full of managers who are strong in execution but very lacking in vision. The problem exec could, in a more inclusive environment, bring his visionary strengths and rely on others to help ensure execution. The broader issue here is a narrow culture that doesn’t embrace and take advantage of differing styles and strengths, and as a result creates a big collective blind spot.
Issue 3 – Stakeholders are unwilling to question their own assumptions and judgments. Often by the time a problem exec gets to us, others have made assumptions about his intent and motivation, and formed judgments that they are unwilling to let go of. Even if the executive is motivated to change and begins trying new behaviors, stakeholders who do not see their own subjective contribution are likely to continue attaching the same old attributions of motive to his behaviors. Similarly, changing ingrained behaviors is a bumpy path, and it’s likely that even an exec who’s changing will slide back into old behaviors under stress. Stakeholders are likely to focus exclusively on the behaviors that they see as evidence that he’s not actually changing. The broader issue in this case is organization members who lack the tools and skills to reflect on their own meaning-making and judgment process.
Issue 4 – Others unwittingly reinforce the exec’s problem behaviors. I once worked with an exec whose “problem” was that he discounted others’ points of view and dictated their actions. His boss told me, “He’s usually right – I just want him to give other people the right answers without upsetting them so much.” That’s a mixed message – in the long term, it’s impossible to impose a solution unilaterally while also fooling people into thinking they have input into the solution. As long as the exec’s boss is reinforcing his coming up with the “right” answer, he is unlikely to take the risk of letting go of control.  The broader issue here is failure to look at the system of rewards and incentives that drives the problem behaviors.
So, what can be done differently? I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek to support the growth of an otherwise-valuable executive who’s demonstrating problem behaviors. But, if you want the endeavor to be successful, those of you surrounding the executive need to consider your potential part in contributing to the problem, and in contributing to the solution – by engaging differently with him, sharing authentic feedback and concrete expectations, questioning organizational practices and processes, and challenging your personal assumptions and judgments.

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