Boardroom feuds ought to be addressed head on

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Ideas & Debate

Boardroom feuds ought to be addressed head on

Leadership wrangles
Leadership wrangles require to be faced head-on and without fear or favour. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a man named John who worked as the operations director at Vocando.

Vocando was an influential think tank funded by international donors who supported its mission to help the land that was far, far away develop sustainable social policies and all that NGO mumbo jumbo. The chief executive officer, Juliana, was an experienced administrator who had recently been hired to steer Vocando back on track after a few years of ineffective mandate delivery.

John, understandably, was not happy with the Vocando board’s decision to hire Juliana when he had viewed himself as the only credible candidate for the job. He had vocalised this loudly to anyone within earshot once the announcement of Juliana’s appointment was made. Within the first six months of Juliana’s tenure, an anonymous letter was sent to the chairman of the board. the letter claimed that Juliana was incompetent and had been hiring relatives into the organisation. The chairperson gave short shrift to the letter, casually mentioning receipt of it to the board and not giving it any further airtime.

Three months later, John called the board chairman and said that the staff were about to go on strike. “Whaaat?” was the explosive response from the chairman. “What do they want to go on strike about?” Apparently the staff were unhappy with the leadership and felt that it needed to be changed according to John. The chairman called an emergency board meeting and asked Juliana to explain what was going on. Juliana explained that she had no idea what John was talking about as no one had approached her about a strike. In fact, she mused, it was odd that John would approach the chairman directly about the purported strike, rather than come to her first. Not surprisingly, many of the directors agreed with her view and asked that Juliana should have a meeting with the staff and try to get to the bottom of the alleged strike.

The alleged strike fizzled out. But within a month, a second anonymous letter was sent to all the board directors stating that Juliana was incompetent and that Vocando was headed towards anarchy and total staff despondency if she carried on in the role. Another emergency board meeting was called in the air-conditioned board room, on the fifth floor of a tall building, in the capital city of the land far, far away.

Juliana was not invited to join the meeting. By this time, most of the directors were exasperated at the escalating tone of the anonymous letters. “We can’t keep meeting like this every time this coward sends these letters,” said one director. The chairman took the view that perhaps it was time to evaluate Juliana’s actual competence as a chief executive.

“But we know who is sending these letters,” said another director, “it’s John and we have to determine if we need to think about his continued stay here.”

The chairman was loathe to open up that can of worms. John was a very effective operations director, but had come out weakly in the interviews for the chief executive role due to a demonstrably poor appreciation of critical stakeholder management at a chief executive level. The board hemmed and hawed about the relationship between the two individuals and eventually left the meeting completely undecided about what steps to take. A few months later, Juliana resigned and John was appointed to the chief executive role.

This painful chronicle of Vocando’s travails in a land far, far away is based on a true story. The board was in a difficult situation and evenly split on whose side to take in this titanic personality clash between the chief executive and the operations director who was undermining her tenure.

The fact that it had come down to taking sides was a failure of the chairman in guiding the board to take a holistic rather than a partisan view of the situation from inception. John’s initial unsuccessful application for the role merited some discussion at the board, especially with regard to how the potential minefields that the incoming chief executive might encounter would be navigated. The chief executive’s eventual resignation remains a stinging indictment on the capacity of the board, led by its chairman, in its fiduciary role of providing effective oversight on the organisation.

Leadership wrangles require to be faced head-on and without fear or favour. It takes a board with unceasing gumption to do this.

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