Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Confronting a Time-Wasting CEO

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am one of three people on our executive team, and I am struggling with the excessive amount of time our CEO spends on outside issues. He spends about ten to fifteen percent of his time working on company issues and the rest on his outside activities. He has accepted positions on multiple boards that are not relevant to our company but provide networking and resume building opportunities for him.

He reports to a Board of Directors who doesn’t know of or understand these time-altering behavior patterns. Our small company is struggling in the recession and yet all the oars are not in the water. Other employees see this and question why.

What do I say to our CEO about his time-wasting behavior?

Lonely Exec

A Dear Lonely,

For the sake of my response, I’m going to take your statements at face value. I need to point this out in advance because I’m going to make a very strong suggestion for how you should handle this. If my assumptions are wrong, then my response may be excessive. Based on what you’ve written, I don’t think it is.

I’m going to assume the following:

1. Your CEO is paid a full salary.

2. He is truly working ten to fifteen percent of a full-time job (i.e., this number is not an exaggeration on your part).

3. He might be receiving compensation for some of the outside work—or at a minimum is receiving personal gain through networking.

4. Your board is a governance (not just an advisory) board. In other words, they are responsible to represent the shareholders by holding him accountable.

5. You have fiduciary responsibility as one of the executives.

If these statements are even largely true, then I have three crucial conversations and one piece of advice for you.

Crucial Conversation #1: You owe it to your boss to confront him about the enormous gap you see between a normal CEO’s level of engagement and his current performance. You need to do this somewhat tentatively to begin with because there is some possibility he has a special employment relationship with the board that you are unaware of. If that turns out to be true, then you will discuss your concerns about whether this arrangement is functional for the company or not. If there is no special arrangement, and as you suspect, the board does not know, then you must move to . . .

Crucial Conversation #2: You must let him know he is stealing from the company and that you have been an accomplice through your silence. Furthermore, you must inform him that you cannot continue as an accomplice. You would prefer that he raise the issue with the board and gain their approval for whatever work pattern he is willing to provide. If he does not, then you must move to . . .

Crucial Conversation #3: You must report this concern to the board. Since I don’t know your board, I don’t know if it would be safest to meet with the chair privately, another board member who is a confidant and would trust your views, or with the full board in session. You’ll have to decide based on what will get your data the best hearing.

Most people would never do this—but would either suffer in silence or just resign and blow the whistle after they leave. If you follow the order above, I believe you will hold yourself to a higher standard of loyalty and integrity. You will give your CEO the chance to restore his integrity, you will honor your loyalty to him, and you will restore the integrity you have lost through your silence. This is a much lonelier and more emotionally difficult path than the easier ways out—and that’s why I suggest making this choice requires impeccable character.

Finally, the advice. Obviously, this approach is fraught with risks. The CEO could turn against you and try to get you fired. The board could disbelieve your perspective (by the way, you had better have data when you approach them). They might believe you but feel they have to be loyal to the CEO (a weak but possible outcome). In any case, you will have left neutral ground forever when you start this series of conversations. So you should have a backup plan in place. It’s easier to feel confident jumping off the cliff if you’ve checked the water depth first. This is a matter of integrity. You need to take these steps. But give yourself enough time to prepare escape plans that protect your interests and those of your family as best you can.

I have not given tactical advice for the conversation. Please know that the statements I made above reflect the points you need to make in the crucial conversations—but they are not a “how to” for the conversation. Use all the skills we’ve described over time in this column—make it safe, lay out facts before tentatively sharing conclusions, and invite disagreement. If you follow those skills, you’ll give the CEO the best chance of understanding your legitimate concerns without taking personal offense. I’ve seen it done before. Practice, practice, practice in advance so you can approach this in a healthy way.

Please drop me a line to let me know what you do. I will be happy to respond to more specific requests for coaching if it will help you get through this most crucial conversation.


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4 thoughts on “Confronting a Time-Wasting CEO”

  1. Teresa

    The CEO may have a different perspective. The higher you are in a company, the more important it is that you DO LOOK OUTSIDE of it and understand the environment in which the firm operates. A C-level executive’s view should be broad, rather than deep. Another approach may be to share specific areas in which his expertise is needed inside the company.

  2. Harry Petropoulos

    dear Joseph,

    I loved your response to “lonely exec” re his part-time CEO. I can only hope that your comments embolden him / her to judiciously move forward down this difficult (but necessary) path.


  3. R Riley

    I read with interest the perspective of the manager whose CEO is spending 15% of their time on the company, and the rest on their “unrelated” board work (for “un-related” non-profits and/or for profit boards, I presume) and your interesting response. With the caveat that you took the letter at face value, you pursued one line of reasoning, without much exploration of a different approach, or questioning the point of view of the critical lonely exec.
    I am the founder, majority stockholder and CEO of a 25 year old successful company. As I look at the structure and strategy of a company that has grown by 20x and the management team I have assembled, I have elevated and delegated many of the duties that some might feel should reside in the CEO office. In addition to this delegation, of the 75 hours a week I work, 25 to 35 are “on” and “in” the business, and the rest at various non-profit boards, some working on industry related boards, some, state level economic development, others on community initiatives, others on environmental or human service related boards. Other CEO’s in the area spend roughly 1/3 of their time on each of the categories of business, industry, and the community.
    There is a disconnect in our business culture that feels as though the main thrust of the CEO should be “inwards” towards the company for which they work, with little regard for the “outwards” view that is necessary for many reasons. I agree, if a company is in great distress, it is necessary to right the ship and provide the necessary leadership to accomplish financial stability. However, this financial responsibility goes hand in hand equally with all the Seven Capitals (Natural, Social, Financial, Human, Cultural, Political, Built) that make up a sustainable organization, industry, sector, community and nation.
    In addition to these capital needs, service on the various “un-related” boards provides additional sharing of best practices, both between the executive and the other board members on which he or she serves, and from the same board members and other executives to the CEO. It also provides leads for reciprocal business services and products, provides market intelligence on common issues, and builds a network of potential employees. All this, not to mention the valuable service the CEO provides to the greater community, and to their company, who receives great social capital because of the representation of the brand. As with most service, many times we receive much more than we give. It is possible to do well by doing good.
    I felt your comments might have taken an alternative view into account, one that weighed the polarities of “inward” and “outward” focus of a CEO. It might be appropriate to explore some of the relationships between the strategic intent of the company and the community in which they live and work. There might very well be a servant leadership value that is part of the company culture. But mostly, I think it appropriate in this day and age that the “whole picture” of responsibilities of a company, its CEO, and their employees, to their community, their industry, and their shareholders encompasses much more than the narrow view of profits and day to day operations.

  4. Joseph Grenny

    Thank you for taking the time to articulate this alternative view of the current reality. I absolutely agree that the contribution of a CEO depends on the critical uncertainties a company faces, the composition of the executive team, etc.,etc . – and that what looks to one like disengagement could in fact be proper strategic focus. Between our two responses to the original question I think there is useful food for thought. @R Riley

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