CEO Chronicles 4: Oh My Boss!

In CEO Chronicles 2, we discussed five traps we should not fall into when dealing with bad bosses. In CEO Chronicles 3, we reviewed the different kinds of bosses we can encounter, and the strategies that we can use when dealing with each kind.

Lastly we asked the question – do the suggested strategies actually work?

To find out, I met with Nadine, a senior manager who shared her experience of dealing with a difficult boss, and how she learned how to survive and thrive.

“In 2014, I joined ABC Corporation as Assistant Manager – HR.” Nadine began. “I was about 30 years old, and had seven years’ experience in two previous jobs. ABC was a reputed, public listed company, and had been around for 25+ years. I was looking forward to learning and growing as a person and a professional.”

“That sounds like a great start” I said, “Did reality match expectations?”

“It started well,” she said, “The HR team had six people, with Laurie as manager, and all of us were women. The team was great, very welcoming and friendly. The CEO was a good guy, ran an open door policy, shared information in regular town-halls, ate with the staff. Most senior managers were friendly and willing to share their knowledge.

“But, within a week, I started noticing things in our department. My colleagues would not answer simple requests for information. Every time I spoke to one of them, they would glance in the direction of Laurie’s cabin. If I asked for a file, they would tell me to check with Laurie.

“She was a control freak, and did not want us talking to anyone”

“Then, during lunch with one of the marketing guys, he told me that my department was the most secretive and unapproachable one in the company. That if he needed anything, he could not speak to any of the team, but that he would have to go to his boss who would then speak to Laurie, and even then, it was a hit-or-miss outcome.

“By the time I completed my first month, I realised that Laurie was a control freak, closely guarding her domain, fearing any form of change or disruption. She was in her late forties, and really insecure. I learnt that she had her ‘favourite’ senior managers whose requests she would support, and whose support she counted on. She also worked hard at making herself indispensable to the C-suite.

“Laurie did not want any of us to show any initiative or speak to anyone or accept any requests. She wanted everything to be channeled to and through her, and she was the only one who was allowed to make decisions. The rest of us were given tasks which we were to complete. Nothing else.

“To be fair to Laurie, she was not harsh or rude. She was quite pleasant as long as we toed her line.”

I smiled. I had worked with a similar boss when I was younger, except he was male.

“How did you feel? What were your first instincts?” I asked.

“Oh, I wanted to leave immediately. I could not work in such an environment. I am not a robot or an assembly line worker! I immediately started putting out feelers within my network.”

“But you were with ABC for more than five years,” I said, not understanding.

“Yes, I am just coming to the turning point,” she grinned. “The evening before I was to attend an interview with another company, I hitched a ride with the CEO. During the drive, we spoke about careers and success factors and stuff. At one point, I asked him what his secret of success was. I will always remember his reply. Well, he said, I am not that smart, or that good, but what I am is bloody persistent. I never give up on anything or anyone. I just keep trying harder and longer than others, that’s all…

“Was I to give that all up because of a bad boss?

“That night, I asked myself if I wanted to stay in ABC. I did. It was a good company, great people, the company was growing and doing really well. My role was interesting. I had a lot to learn. Was I to give all that up just because my boss was a control freak?

“No. Absolutely not. So, I decided that I am going to find a way to work with Laurie. To that, I needed to first find out what made her tick. Why was she insecure? Why did she want to control everything? Why did she not want us to speak to anyone?”

“That’s really smart thinking,” I said. “What and how did you find out?”

“A couple of days later, we went out for lunch,” said Nadine. “We sat and spoke about many things. In the beginning, it was like pulling teeth, but gradually, Laurie opened up. She was actually quite smart and witty. She told me about her career and while she was doing so, we realised that we had a couple of mutual friends in her previous company.

“The next day, I called my friend, and asked her to tell me everything she knew about Laurie. And boy, was it good!”

“Come on, don’t build up the suspense! This is not a soap opera!” I protested.

Nadine laughed briefly and turned serious. “It seems that Laurie was not always like this. She got divorced about five years ago when she found that her husband was cheating on her. On top of that, the bastard pulled out all their savings and disappeared with his girlfriend to Thailand. She was left alone, with two teenagers, a bunch of bills and a mortgage. It seems she changed overnight. She stopped trusting anyone, become very quiet and inward looking. She is doing better financially now, but it was touch and go for a while.”

“That must have been really tough on her, poor thing”, I said.

“I decided that I will befriend her and gain her trust. I suddenly saw Laurie in a different light,” said Nadine. “If I had gone through what she had, I would be a wreck! She was really strong and managing much better than many others would have. I decided that I am going to stay and make it work.”

“What did you do?”, I asked, curious to know her approach.

“Well, first I decided that I am going to be her friend, regardless of her distrust and aloofness. Second, I decided that I am going to spend at least one hour each week speaking to her, giving her an update on everything that is happening in the company, and giving her ideas on areas that need addressing. Third, I am going to look for and find Laurie’s every positive attribute and mirror them with her. I decided that I would win her trust and her friendship.”

“Okay, that seems a good start,” I said, “but how does that address the control and the insecurity?”

“I am persistent, too,” Nadine said smiling. “Within a month, Laurie and I were friends. One evening, she invited me for dinner, and downloaded the entire horrid saga, and cried and cried. I felt so sorry for her. Strangely, the next few days, she was back to her aloof self. Till she realised that I had kept her confidence strictly. Then, she started trusting me. Completely.

“After that, it was increasingly easy. I made sure I never took away any of her glory. I funnelled all ideas through her, and she would then allocate them to me and the other team members. The beauty is that within a few months, she herself was complimenting us publicly. She started opening up with the team and then, gradually with other colleagues.

“Now, I am Group Head of HR!

“The other team members were baffled by the turnaround. One day, one of them, Janice, asked me about it. She had been around for about three years. I, in turn, asked her whether she had ever tried to speak to Laurie, and get to know and understand her. Oh no, Janice said, Laurie was always too distant and she was scared of being rebuffed. So, she kept to herself and did what was told and suffered quietly.”

“Wow,” I said, impressed, “you are a miracle worker!”

“Oh no, not at all!”, she deflected, “I just decided that I would find a way forward. And I am glad I did. I learnt so much in ABC and was promoted twice, and because of the credibility I built up there, I was headhunted and am now Group Head of HR!”

“Nadine, trust me, you have done much more than ‘find a way’”, I said, “You took a bad situation, applied yourself to it, turned it around, and in the process, succeeded and grew! Many others would have just given up and run away.”

“I had a choice,” said Nadine, smiling, “to quit or to succeed. And I hate to quit.”

Post Script : You will be aware, I am sure, that while the characters in this narrative are real, the names ABC, Nadine, Laurie and Janice are not, for obvious reasons. I had the pleasure of meeting Laurie a few weeks later, and was impressed with her confidence, poise and acumen. Who was the real winner, I wonder – Nadine or Laurie?

Venkatraman Sheshashayee

Venkatraman Sheshashayee (Shesh) is Managing Director of Radical Advice, a business transformation advisory based in Singapore. He has over 34 years of experience in manufacturing, shipping and offshore oil & gas. Shesh’s previous roles include CEO of Miclyn Express Offshore, CEO & ED of Jaya Holdings Limited and Managing Director of Greatship Global. In his new avatar, Shesh helps SMEs, start-ups and aspiring professionals achieve their potential.


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