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Notes from the Corporate Underground

Tough love is, well, tough

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Dear Stan,

I'm the sales and marketing vice president in a capital equipment manufacturer, founded in 1975. For the last 15 years, I've worked for the CEO, who has been here about 20 years.

Throughout our working history, Pauli has been at least eccentric, and often crudely domineering. While his vision and entrepreneurialism are probably why we've tripled our size and profits during his tenure as CEO, his communication style creates an environment of anxiety. He challenges people, in group meetings or in private, with the tactfulness of a blind hog. And if he is not happy with you, or if you have expressed discontent yourself, he will simply withdraw from you, choosing not to interact.

On the other hand, his blustering isn't matched by capricious and negative employee decisions. He hasn't fired a single person since I've been here, although several have quit. He will often come out of the blue with a really touching recognition of a staff member. He is the first to come in, last to leave, and jumps in to help anyone on anything when the deadline is looming. And if your family is experiencing tragedy or health challenges, you immediately receive full support from Pauli, including covering your job with added staff while you're gone, even though the cost is more than budgeted. Or he'll award you unearned time off to take care of things, without being asked.

So my question is, why does Pauli come with so many negative behaviors as well as his positive ones? And how do we get him to change?


Tired of the Abuse

Dear Tired,

Your description of Pauli's behavior pattern is not uncommon among entrepreneurs. They put their heart and soul into the organizational mission. They have not only drunk the Kool-Aid, they are the alchemist mixing the brew. Therefore, entrepreneurs tend to assume that everyone else has too. That's not the case. Most people who take a job, who follow a career, do not often have the opportunity (or the desire) to adopt the broadly responsible perspective of the CEO. They do not unreservedly dedicate their every waking moment to thinking about the business and how to make it great. The telling phrase you hear repeated is, "I don't live to work. I work to live." This simply indicates that the work has insufficient meaning for them to devote their full emotional investment.

Committed entrepreneur CEOs wake up thinking about the business, do so all day long, and go to sleep thinking about the business. They dream the business. They plan in the shower. They get up at 3 a.m. and jot notes. When Pauli comes to the office, he has already been at work for several hours thinking up new ways to do things, devising audacious goals and plans that have no basis in what staff would call reality.

So every day, Pauli thinks that his purpose is to cause everyone else to do more in less time, with fewer resources, than anyone thought possible. Depending upon Pauli's development history and that of the other people in the company, how he communicates challenge can be either a positive or negative experience. If your culture is primarily of a Southern California pattern, his communication style would not be compatible. Pauli's use of loud speech, name-calling, nonverbal cues of disdain and stunned disbelief when his directions are questioned would be received as disrespectful and threatening. But if your culture is primarily an eastern urban pattern, such as Newark or New York, his pushy, accusing manner might be comforting, motivating.

There is a clue in your description of his behavior that leads me to the possibility that Pauli is a big-hearted pushover who just wants to leave a grand legacy built from hard work and the experience of a turbo team who overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles. For example, if he doesn't take action to fire people he has a conflict with, then he is not the kind of CEO who readily applies the power of his position to others' detriment. The fact that he also goes out of his way to authentically recognize people who contribute above and beyond the call, and that he supports people in their time of true need, indicates that this man cares a great deal about people.

I think the problem is probably not with the CEO, even though his communication and behavior might not match what you'd prefer. I believe the problem is with you and his other staff members. You don't know how to stand up to heartfelt, impassioned, selfless, demanding, unreasonable, pushy bosses when you have to. If you can hold your ground when your position is right, while still looking for ways to help your CEO fulfill a grand vision, you won't be so wounded if Pauli comes in one morning and says to you, "You know, I've been thinking of promoting you. But I've already got a good paperweight. When are you going to stop wasting time and get that project finished??"

Instead, you would look up calmly from your desk and say, "If I were a paperweight, you'd still need written instructions on how to use me. Now what can I do for you today, boss?"

Sewitch is CEO of KI Investment Holdings, LLC, conducting an investment experiment in long-term principles. He can be reached at stan@sddt.com.

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