The amazing thing about train wrecks is that they are obvious in hindsight. However, while they are happening, everyone involved is gripped by some horrid fascination that, if not forcibly interrupted, leads to the inevitable conclusion.
By the end of this particular train wreck, a member of the senior management team had resigned and the CEO had lost the trust of many of his formerly extremely loyal employees.
The newly hired VP of Sales was given responsibility for supervising a particular product manager, someone who had been with the company for years. They did not hit it off and the relationship went downhill from there.
The PM was charged by the CEO with getting a particular release of the software out the door. The VP of Sales wanted the project manager to be working on something else. The CEO kept promising to straighten things out with the VP of Sales, but never quite got around to it.
The VP of Sales became ever more frustrated with the constant “insubordination” of the PM; the PM, meanwhile, was increasingly frustrated with getting one set of instructions from the VP and one from the CEO.
The VP of Sales eventually went to the CEO and told him that he was planning to fire an employee. The CEO shrugged and didn’t think much about it. “It’s your department,” was his only response.
The VP told the project manager to leave, that she was suspended without pay pending completion of the paperwork to fire her.
At this point, the CEO noticed that the PM wasn’t in the office, found out what was going on, and “unfired” her. While she was happy to be unfired, she was also furious that he’d let it get to that point. The VP of Sales, meanwhile, was just a tad miffed. He felt he’d received carte blanche and ended up feeling much like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football as Lucy jerks it away.
The CEO’s attitude was that, “these things just happen.” He was, of course, wrong.
Teams are not a group of people operating in their own silos, independent of one another. Rather, they are an interacting system and sometimes parts of that system don’t work quite the way they should. When something goes wrong, it’s important understand the system and how different players contributed to the problem.
The Project Manager was nobly perhaps, but foolishly, focused on the assignment she’d received from the CEO. Her attempts to explain to the VP of Sales just why she wasn’t focusing on his objectives were either insufficient or simply missing. She may have assumed that the CEO would explain things to him, but didn’t force the issue when it became obvious that he hadn’t.
The VP of Sales walked into the company and made a number of assumptions about how work was done and how authority was implemented. Rather than take the time to find out how people worked in the company, how rigid or flexible the lines of control were, and what other projects might be going on, he assumed that an employee put into his department could be assigned to his projects. He didn’t listen to the PM and he never made the effort to go to the CEO and found out what was going on. He assumed the CEO was paying attention to issues in his department that were, quite simply, not where the CEO’s mind was. Even when he went to the CEO to explain that he wanted to fire someone, he didn’t bother to explain the situation.
The CEO, for his part, also contributed in a major way to the final, unsatisfying outcome. He knew he was giving an employee instructions that might contradict what her manager was telling her. He also knew the project manager was extremely frustrated with her new manager. He didn’t act on that knowledge. He was busy, and explaining things to the VP of Sales was not a high priority for him. Even once the situation had reached its climax and the project manager had been fired, the CEO didn’t really address the problem. He simply pulled the rug out from under the VP of Sales and did not consider how that might make the VP look to his other subordinates.
At every stage of the game, the CEO, the PM, and the VP of Sales each had opportunities to address issues that each of them wanted to avoid: the CEO didn’t really want to deal with the disappointment of the PM at having her project cancelled, nor did he want to upset his new VP of Sales. The PM did not want her project cancelled and really wasn’t all that interested in the project the VP of Sales wanted her to take on. The VP of Sales had his own views about power and authority and didn’t really want to find out that the company did things differently than he believed they should be done. He was angry, blamed the PM, and wanted to punish her.
Right up to the end, stopping to address the unpleasant issues and recognizing how each person was contributing to the impending train wreck could have changed the results. Instead, each person operated in a vacuum, and managed to achieve one of the worst of all possible results.
What difficult situations or awkward conversations are people in your office avoiding?