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How to Deal With a Toxic CEO

July 19, 2009
by Tim Tolan
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I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up every working day - knowing your work environment is contaminated with a toxic CEO. Literally, as soon as your feet hit the floor each morning you most likely have this sick feeling in your gut. How will your day play out today? I’m sure you would rather call in sick, win the lottery or take a very long vacation. This scenario must be incredibly difficult to deal with - especially in this economic environment. There is hope.

Let’s explore a few options you have to deal with this issue.

Quit. Not so fast. This is not a very good option unless you have a plan. The timetable to find another job in this tight job market and replace your current income is very long, may involve relocation and selling your home. Not good. In time, the right opportunity will come along and you can head for the exit doors. Until then – please stay put and keep reading.

Honest communication and feedback. This can be tricky but will certainly give you a clear message that life as you know it will either change - or not. Try to be open- minded until you reach that conclusion. Ask to meet with your CEO in private. Explain that in an effort to have open communication you have questions about a recent example where his/her behavior affected you and you want honest feedback as to why you were treated in the manner that he/she chose to use. Find out if you did something that deserved that sort of outcome/behavior. This needs to be done in a way that shows you want constructive feedback from your CEO and you were just confused by the message being sent. NOTE: This conversation could take multiple directions and you must remain calm and (very) cool when you decide to approach your CEO. If the conversation goes south – you will have your answer.

Document every example of his/her toxic behavior. This is information you may need later if you are written up or fired and your notes need to be detailed. Be specific. You need the date(s), time, subjects discussed and actual quotes of (exactly) what was said in any toxic encounter you experience. Make written notes and keep them in your pocket and transcribe them once you get home on your own computer. If you are terminated – you may not have access to your work computer. These notes should be shared with the top Human Resources executive at the appropriate time. Their conversations with you should be confidential (but not always). Be careful and document that conversation as well.

Set goals and get out! You may just have to bail. Not the end of the world – call it a new beginning. Set your goals on a new opportunity and start (quietly) contacting your trusted network to see what might be out there. Update your LinkedIn profile. Phone a friend. Set a drop dead exit goal and work on your plan every time you have a chance. Life is entirely too short. So… get out as soon as you possibly can. You will feel much better once you remove this from your life.

Your life is about to improve in a very big way!! You deserve to be happy!

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Comments

Tim,
Great post and advice. A closely related occurrence is shielding ones sub-ordinates from your toxic boss. I found this article to be highly illuminating on that topic:

"The Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero And Casualty," by Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1999.

Tim,

Great advice. I've had the unfortunate experience of working with a toxic CEO, and you are exactly right. . . talk about Sunday night dread! I do believe that some (not all) leadership skills can be learned, but that all CEOs would benefit from picking up your pocket primer, "The CEOs Guide To Talent Acquisition" and focusing on the retention chapters. Here's my review: http://tinyurl.com/ks58hb

G.

Gwen: Unfortunately I had a similar experience and vowed never to let that happen again. For me - I dreaded each night as I could never have any peace with my very toxic leader. I decided to bail and never looked back. And thanks for the plug on my book!

Joe:

Good point. Shielding your team comes with a price - as you already know. Everything rolls down-hill regardless - and by shielding and protecting your team, you actually catch the rath in heavier doses. Thanks for the link.

Tim Tolan

Senior Partner, Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice

@@TimTolan

http://sanfordrose.net/thetolangroup/

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