'Hey Boss — You're Fired!'

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

'Hey Boss — You're Fired!'

I know. You think that you are the boss, so you do the firing. But the more organizationally pernicious version of firing is when the boss is fired by his direct reports. I get a few coaching requests a year from companies that have a senior leader who has been fired by his staff.

Of course, it is not a literal firing. It is far worse. The fired boss is more and more left out of the loop, not consulted, worked around and occasionally even publicly challenged by his direct reports. And the worst part is, the more he is ignored by the organization that reports to him, the more he grasps for control. It is a power struggle that unless caught early almost never works out for the boss.

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Here are the main reasons I see that bosses get fired by their staff.

► Top of the list is a high need for control. The days of “I think, you do” management are dead and gone. In what has become an all-out war for hiring and keeping top talent, few managers will tolerate simply being an extension of the boss’ will. Delegation, coaching and some room for personal initiative and exploration are more likely to keep top talent from being easily poached.

Remember, your best people quit bosses, not companies. High-control leadership as a sustained practice will chase off top talent faster than any pay cut.

Aloofness and unavailability are also great ways to get fired by your direct reports. If you are never available, your staff will stop looking for counsel and coaching. Or they will simply ignore you altogether. Even as the boss, you can be put in solitary when people learn that they cannot count on being able to get to you.

Bosses disappear in more ways that just physically. I recently met with a very talented leader who left an organization here in Arkansas, reporting to a very high-profile CEO. “It was not about money or vacation or any of that. I liked how independently I could work. But I had a huge project to deliver and the boss was just never there. … Even when he was in the office, he was not available. I could have moved faster if I had been able to check in often enough to know we were on the right track. In the end, we delivered. But the project could have been completed much sooner and with less expense if I could have gotten a little face time.”

► Finally there’s the boss who cannot deliver clear feedback or deal with difficult conversations. This leader will tolerate poor performers and all manner of bad behavior all for the sake of avoiding difficult conversations or recognizing his own role in challenges.

Hunter Lott, a legend in the Vistage speaker community, was here for one of my CEO groups this month and reminded me of a harsh but true reality of leadership. “The best way to keep your A players is for them to see the C players either shape up or go out the door.” Veteran leaders understand that they get what they tolerate, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with poor performance sends a message to the best players that they are in the wrong environment.

One of the hardest issues involving a boss who is fired by staff is that he often either cannot see the problem in the mirror or will deflect responsibility to others. That makes coaching or other development interventions a challenge. Sometimes a bare-knuckle 360 evaluation will have an impact, but often this failure to accept responsibility is an indication to the organization that the fired boss is not going to change much. And that is generally a career-limiting decision and an indication to the organization that it is time to consider making the firing more literal.

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is an executive coach with a global practice and a Vistage Private advisory board chair. Contact him at BarryG@IBGoldberg.com.