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Business/Economy

Chief operating officer leaves bodies in his wake

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: November 12
  • Published November 12

Q: One of my key managers just threatened to quit unless I allow him to report directly to me rather than to “Sam,” our chief operating officer. I know Sam can be hard to take and I generally try to be a buffer between him and several managers, including this man. I don’t want to cave to an ultimatum but I also don’t want to lose another member of our leadership team; two managers quit soon after we promoted Sam to COO. At the same time, I can’t afford to lose Sam, which is what might happen if I tell him he no longer supervises this man. Sam already resents that I tell him he has to be nicer. He would see my moving this man out from under him as a lack of support for him, which is a regular complaint of his.

Not only would modifying the organization chart be an ego blow for Sam, it wouldn’t be right or fair. This manager’s department logically reports to the COO and Sam earned his title with hard work. This manager does a fine job, but he’s one of those 40-hour-a-week guys who doesn’t go above and beyond. In contrast, Sam gives his job whatever it takes to succeed. He’s tremendously productive and has streamlined operations and increased our profitability.

How do I keep both Sam and this manager on board?

A: You need to find out what’s going on and fix it. Did the two managers leave because they didn’t want to work under Sam, or because they thought they deserved the promotion he received and felt passed over? When they saw Sam move forward in his career, did it trigger each of them to seek out better work opportunities, or does Sam have serious flaws as a manager?

Even though you admit Sam is hard to take, do you see the full reality? Or does your appreciation for the results Sam achieves partially blind you to how badly he treats those he supervises? Find out. Thoroughly interview the manager who threatens to quit, as well as the other managers who report to Sam.

Next, evaluate the role you play in this situation. Are you so easygoing that you play “good cop,” forcing Sam to play “bad cop”? For example, do the managers under Sam resent that he works hard and expects the same from them, while they know that those who report to you face no repercussions for working only the minimum 40 hours a week? Do you undermine Sam, or does he play the “back me no matter how I act or you’re not supporting me” card because it keeps you from calling him on his problem behavior?

You now intervene between Sam and others. That’s not enough. He needs to change how he relates so you don’t have to buffer his interactions with his direct reports. Sam needs to learn how to get things done without leaving bodies in his wake, and he may not know how. Telling a hard-charging manager to be “nicer” without telling him how puts a bandage on a wound that deserves real medicine in the form of specific guidance.

What does Sam do or not do to drive away those who report to him? Does he ask that projects be completed by unrealistic timelines? Does he need to listen more and talk less when interacting with managers under him who hold views other than his? If you feel you can’t yourself get candid answers by interviewing the managers under Sam, bring in a neutral third party who can interview Sam, the manager threatening to quit and Sam’s other direct reports, and make specific recommendations.

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