You Can't Make this Stuff Up!

Note:  As promised last week, here is another (actual) case history from my past client folder. Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 can be found on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

I have been called on many times to solve personality clashes between executives in the workplace, but this one stands out. Here's why:

CEO "A" decides to retire after ten years at the helm; he is tired of solving the myriad of problems in a public health care delivery organization with 250 employees. The Board, in recognition of his service, offers him the position of Executive Director of their (charitable) Foundation. He accepts and moves into his new role. In the meantime, the VP of Operations is tapped to be the Interim CEO, while a comprehensive search for a new CEO is undertaken.

Interim CEO "B" and CEO "A" worked together for the entire ten years that CEO "A" was in place. Here's the rub; they hate each other! Now, CEO "A" is subordinate to CEO "B" per the organizational structure, but because it is a separate charitable organization, "A" has his own Board of Directors. Notwithstanding, the Foundation's only purpose is as a supporting organization, devoted to its parent and was chartered as such.

Soon enough, "A" decides to start steering his own ship slightly awry of "B's" course for the parent organization. After awhile, the Foundation begins to look like a Community Foundation, supporting many other charitable organizations in the community which the parent organization serves. Also, "A" builds a very powerful Board, much more so than "B's" Board, which makes it difficult to "B" to bring "A" and the Foundation into alignment with the parent.

Sparks start to fly between A & B, but it is done in such a way that it is mostly passive aggressive and through triangulation, involving other people within the organization to pass messages between them. As this souring of the relationship progresses, it begins a downward spiral toward open detente; neither side willing to engage in open war, but, more importantly, it wastes energy in a disperse fashion and not only do A and B lose sight of the mission, but people start to take sides within the executive ranks, betting on who will win the cold war. To make it more interesting, A initiates a campaign among the parent organization's Board to come back to the CEO chair! B finds out, and the war escalates to the point where neither will tolerate the other in the same room.

Here is where I enter stage right into this psychodrama, consulted by CEO B, to help him solve the problem. My first thought is to look at the situation from an organizational POV and evaluate the effectiveness of A's Foundation, in light of best practices. This would take the shape of an audit, not just an accounting review, but a look at the methods and processes utilized by the Foundation to achieve the stated goals and the actual results. CEO B jumps on it and asks me to take it on, which I agree to. CEO A gets wind of this chess move and immediately blocks it, by bring his Board into the mix and stating that it should be an open call for vendors to ensure "fairness." I agree to that and respond to the RFP in turn. Then, A gets ingenious and decides to change the scope of work and budget for the project and cuts the budget by 2/3, knowing that there are local vendors who will gladly work for a lower fee and that I probably will not.

He was correct, and I recuse myself from the process. The local firm performs the evaluation and whitewashes all results in A's favor. However, they do recommend that a strategic planning process takes place to strengthen and focus the Foundation's activities. Another RFP is issued for the planning project and, at first, I decide to respond, but, then, slowly I start to realize that, if I continue, I am only contributing to this dysfunctional relationship between A and B.

I contact CEO A and tell him I am withdrawing from the contest for the planning project. I also contact CEO B and ask him to meet. We do, and I suggest that, given the level of distrust and animosity between A and B, that a mediation process takes place (between A and B) to mitigate the overall dysfunction and immense waste of time all of this negative energy is creating for the organization. I even recommend that I step back in this instance and bring in someone else I know that is excellent in this arena; using the overall strategic plan as a way to find commonalities between the two disparate parties to find alignment in common goals and to create focus (again) on the mission of the organization.

Here is where it gets fascinating.....CEO B looks at me, horrified, and he blurts out, "But that would mean that we would have to admit that we have a problem!" You can't make this stuff up.

The root of the above problem is based on a lack of trust, closely followed by both parties lacking the skills to engage in professional conflict.

Note: Next week - exploring the conflict continuum.