This month is the five-year anniversary of my stepping away from being a full-time corporate CEO and starting my career as a professor and Executive in Residence at Northern Arizona University. Five years ago, I wondered how I would stay current on what was happening in corporate America, so that I could continue to teach as a qualified and informed practitioner.
I’m extremely fortunate in that not only do I get to teach, but I have the opportunity to sit on a number of boards, while also serving as the CEO of the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance. These outside opportunities keep me up-to-date on the many challenges and changes that are taking place outside of the academic world.
As a result of the outside work I do, I was given the opportunity to step in as interim CEO for a large (nearly 1,000 employee) organization. For a number of reasons, the CEO resigned and a new CEO hadn’t been identified yet. There are several lessons I learned from this month-long experience.
- If you are a board member, take it serious and be engaged.
The first thing I did was to meet with as many managers as possible. I wanted to find out what happened, and at the same time, assure the managers that we were there to help and that we would make sure the new CEO was the right person for the job.
The former CEO lasted for 28 months. To my surprise the majority of the senior managers told me they knew within 60 days that the CEO was the wrong person for the job. I then heard horror stories of neglect and abuse. I asked why no one communicated concerns to the board. I heard everything from, “The board doesn’t do anything,” to “We have never seen anyone from the board.”
Any of you who follow my column on a regular basis know my belief is that the board should never be involved in the day-to-day operation of any organization. That being said, the board is responsible for the hiring and firing of the CEO (or executive director) and better know how that person is performing.
- Jump up and down on the table and scream.
So don’t do this literally, but never sit back and stay silent. The next thing I did was to meet with as many employees as possible. Again, my goal was to let everyone know that the board did indeed care, we wanted to hear their input and feedback, and we were working to get a new CEO.
Some of the feedback from the managers was repeated by the employees. There were stories of yelling, criticizing, putting employees down and making them feel unappreciated. There is no excuse for this type of behavior from a senior executive.
I asked everyone I spoke to who shared the stories, “Why didn’t you jump up on the table and scream, “This is not acceptable and I won’t tolerate be treated like this!” What you tend to hear is that you would be fired or you just wouldn’t do that to this person.
No one deserves to be treated poorly by a senior executive. No one should ever dread going into work and dealing with a CEO. No one should go home at the end of the day crying because of how he or she was treated by the executive director. If you are an employee being poorly treated by any executive, jump up on the table and scream “enough!” Or at a minimum, contact the human resource director or the board and demand action.
- When the ship is sinking, the best swimmers jump first.
When an organization is being poorly managed or led, the top performers will leave first. They know they can land a job anywhere and will go to an organization that respects and treats them well. Failing to make the change will leave you with an organization without talent, or at least without the individuals who tend to think outside-of-the-box and are looked to for giving the extra 10 percent.
Unemployment is at the lowest it has been in a long time. You need to make sure your senior team is going above and beyond to make your employees feel appreciated.
While I enjoyed the interim CEO opportunity, I am happy to report we have hired a real rock-star CEO that has hit the ground running. And with classes starting in three weeks, I have some new stories to share.
T Paul Thomas teaches business and nonprofit entrepreneurship at Northern Arizona University, serves as the CEO of the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance (NALA) and is the Chief Entrepreneur at the NACET Accelerator. Prior to joining NAU in 2013, Paul spent 25 years as a serial CEO and President. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org