In your boss’ crosshairs by Roz Usheroff

A recent Harvard Business Review article Who New CEOs Fire First by Sarah Green, reminded me of a story of a wonderful person, who unfortunately pushed an executive by disagreeing with him.

From that moment on, he was on the executive’s hit list.

This sweet guy was just about to leave, giving into defeat when by a stroke of good fortune, the executive who had issue with him was himself asked to leave.  Long story short, this individual is now CEO of the company.

Even though the above story is a testimony to the fact that sometimes nice people can finish first, it nonetheless made me wonder what do you do if for whatever reason, you find yourself in your boss’ crosshairs?

One of the more creative approaches to disarming an adversarial situation was demonstrated by how Dave Tovar, Walmart’s VP of corporate communications, responded to a critical article in the New York Times.

While you can read about his response, and the circumstances surrounding its necessity in a LinkedIn post by Gary Firsch, what struck me about Tovar’s approach was not only its originality, but its somewhat disarming tone that achieved the perfect balance between standing one’s ground without coming across as being defensive.  This is a key in any situation in which there is either a difference of opinion or clash of personalities – even if said clash is unilateral.

But disarming without being defensive is just one point to consider when confronted with a trying relationship between yourself and your boss.

Obviously, you also have to take the bull by the horns and address the elephant in the room.  Specifically, what is it that you have or, may not have done, that has led your boss to believe that you are no longer on board as an important member of his or her team.

This is where what I call a dialogue of understanding has to occur . . . a dialogue I might add that will almost certainly have to be initiated by you.

Through an open and  productive exchange you may be surprised to discover that the disconnect is rooted in a simple misinterpretation of your actions or words.  This means that by boldly bringing the issue out into the open, you provide your boss with the opportunity to clarify his or her expectations while giving them the opportunity of seeing you in a whole new light.

Finally, and again taking a page from Walmart’s Tovar, a lighthearted reflection can help to ease any remaining tension and open the door for rebuilding your relationship with your boss.  When I talk about being lighthearted, I am not talking about telling a joke or a dismissive minimalization of the circumstances that were the source of the friction.  What I am talking about is a manner of interaction that speaks to the inherent fallibility of human relationships, and the need to take a positive and conciliatory step forward.

Now some may ask what if I did nothing wrong?  What if my boss just doesn’t like me or isn’t interested in working things out?

HBR CEO Fires First

The Green article certainly suggests that sometimes you are on the firing line simply because there has been a change at the top.

In situations such as these, and as demonstrated by the following story of Sheila about whom I talk at length in my book, it not only takes courage in terms of speaking out, but also the courage to deal with the consequences of laying one’s cards on the table.

Sheila was a top-flight executive who was being groomed for the chief position in her company when she was given the task of turning around the organization’s failing European operation.  Never one to shy away from a challenge, she accepted the difficult assignment.  Within a relatively short period of time Sheila turned the company’s lack of success overseas around, increasing revenues by 100 percent.

Based on her performance, one would assume that job security would not be an issue.  After all, hadn’t she dutifully, at the request of the American operation’s senior management, moved her family from North America to Europe?  Didn’t she undertake an assignment that to most would have presented a daunting, high-risk endeavor that might have caused them to shy away?  And didn’t she deliver results beyond anyone’s expectations?

Despite this glowing track record and the favor of her American bosses, when a new executive to whom she was to report in Europe was appointed, the unexpected happened.  Within 30 seconds of their second meeting, Sheila was terminated.

In her initial assessment of the situation, Sheila believed that the first meeting with her new boss was, in her words, “one of the worst first meetings” that one could imagine. In a follow-up call, and just prior to their second meeting, Sheila shared these feelings with this individual. Could Sheila’s straight-forward dialogue have been at the root of her termination? After all, didn’t he ask for her opinion?  Apparently, at least with this new boss, such frankness was not only viewed in a negative light, it formed the basis for the dismissal of a top-notch executive.

While you can read about why this happened in my book, the point I am making is simply this; if you honor your brand and do not allow the circumstances to dictate your response, you will be in a position of self-empowerment that will allow you to deal with any unpleasantness with class and dignity.  This alone will speak volumes and will likely serve you well going forward whether with your present employer or with a new company.

By the way, Sheila is now a top executive with a competitor, and is enjoying even greater success than before with her new organization.

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