Problems with top executives eventually spread to all levels



Patrick runs an influential staff department and has been with his company for 28 years. He is "tight" with the CEO, who sees him as a loyal, dedicated employee. Unfortunately, Patrick is seen as a poorly performing obstructionist by most of the other mangers in the organization. All attempts to get the CEO to confront Patrick have failed. Meanwhile, important projects die from lack of Patrick's support and employees are becoming cynical from the growing reality that Patrick is "untouchable" and able to block any new idea that happens to threaten him or make him work harder than he wants to.


Lisa works for the new Senior Vice President in a large computer software company. She's been a project manager and systems analyst for over 10 years and now runs a large, successful division. The Sr. VP used to run a smaller company, which was acquired by his current employer. Lisa has recently accepted a job with another company. She says that the Senior Vice President has mistreated her and the rest of his employees. He curses, shouts, pounds on the table and last month she almost became insubordinate in a meeting while he was bullying her. Attempts to get the President to confront this situation have failed. Complainers have been told to deal with it and get a more positive attitude.


The President and CEO in these two organizations have chosen not to confront their own employees' performance problems. Unfortunately, when a high level manager is dysfunctional, it usually has a ripple down effect that hurts many people beneath them in the organization. This inertia can come from any one of the following reasons.

  • They have discounted the seriousness of the damage that is occurring. This is especially true if the problem person is in a staff department. The owner or President is more likely to deal swiftly with performance problems if the person directly affects the customer or hurts sales or production in some way.
  • They are preoccupied with large, company-wide problems and have classified this issue as less important.
When a senior executive is preoccupied with things such as strategizing new company initiatives and dealing with stockholders and key customers, it’s understandable how a nagging personnel issue can seem like a persistent gnat that is annoying but can be brushed away. With other performance issues the President can delegate to the manager in charge or get the Human Resources Department involved. But when the person reports to the President herself, there is no one else to delegate to.
  • They lack the skills to confront the person, especially if the person has been a long-time associate.
Confrontation is never easy and it can be particularly difficult if the relationship has been a long and collegial one. As with any confrontation of this type, it's awkward and painful to discuss performance with a long-time friend.
  • The problem grows gradually, without a big event drawing attention to the performance problem.
Sometimes the problem performer slips into mediocrity so slowly the senior executive doesn't notice. The person cashes in on past accomplishments and lives on the dividends. In other cases the Peter Principle takes effect and the person is promoted to a level of incompetence. The senior executive is usually the one who promoted him beyond his skill level and then doesn't know quite how to right the wrong without offending his long-time colleague and admitting his own mistake.
  • Once a person rises to a high level in a company there are few places to move laterally if the job isn't a good fit.
If a person fails at the top, there is usually little else to do but force them to leave. This harsh choice prevents some senior executives from taking action. If the organization is experiencing other problems, the executive is reluctant to rock the boat.
  • Often senior executives and owners aren't good coaches. Frequently, these folks are action-oriented entrepreneurs or fast thinking strategists who readily admit that they don't have the patience or the interest in coaching a senior manager. Some feel that any manager who makes it to the top of a company should have all the necessary skills and shouldn't need hand holding. However, new assignments at any level often require personal development and coaching.
  • Sometimes a senior executive is out of touch and the problem performer works hard to keep it that way. Although most employees believe that the person at the top knows everything that is going on, they couldn't be farther from the truth. Some executives are so isolated from the day-to-day goings-on that they are shocked when they learn the truth that everyone around them knew for months or even years.

The skillful executive faces up to the responsibility of confronting performance issues, particularly at the top, because he or she knows the damage it will cause if it is left alone. He or she doesn't try to reorganize around the problem, because they know it only delays it and makes it worse.  They know that creating artificial infrastructure to prop up a bad executive only distorts and corrupts the system and destroys the spirit and productivity of the good employees.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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