Almost everybody has at least one horror story about a terrible boss. I have five such stories, from five different bosses. These are the skills it took to survive them all.
1. The incompetent.
Following the acquisition of a previous company I worked for, a new vice president was named to takeover the our high-functioning public affairs group that included government relations, community affairs, external and internal communications as well as corporate social responsibility.
While I was initially optimistic, within a few weeks my positivity faded as she gerrymandered the team’s roles and responsibilities into a confusing, unworkable mess, with no face-to-face input or direct briefings from her down line. Within nine months of her taking over, more than 60 percent of the team had turned over voluntarily.
I didn’t know the depth of her incompetence until a month or so later, when she commented in a meeting of senior leaders, “Why don’t we just cut the price of our product in half to gain share?"
That single statement demonstrated that she didn’t know our business or flag-ship product. She never took the time to familiarize herself with its razor-thin margins, its cost of goods or its manufacturing process. She lasted another year before she was fired.
Survival Tactic: When working with an incompetent boss, you need to augment and showcase your own level of competency. Know your business, your customers, your products, your numbers – everything, inside and out. Become the go-to-person within your group that the organization can rely on, because they can’t rely on your boss.
2. The bully.
I’ve written about this particular CEO before, when he summarily fired the best boss I ever worked for, who was beloved by union members and management alike. The bullying CEO asked me my opinion of the surprise firing and I told him it was a grave misstep that would unsettle the organization.
His nodding response was, "Good, I like to inject fear into organizations.” This guy embodied the corporate bully. His tenure was a little bit more than a year before declines in customer service forced his ouster from the top job.
Survival Tactic: Whether in an elementary school classroom or a corporate boardroom, it’s never easy facing a bully. But the key to surviving bullies in business is boldness. Others will notice you’re not afraid of the bully and they may help you anonymously.
When organizational change occurs, and it will because bullying is an unsustainable management style, you’ll be remembered and rewarded for your grit.
3. The phony.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed you couldn’t go a week or two without reading a news story about a top executive or CEO who padded their resume or claimed to have an advanced degree that they really didn’t.
I worked for one of those guys.
Even though his career deception was embarrassing when it came out, he kept his job.
However, one of the unintended consequences of the board of directors’ mishandling of that decision was a seemingly unspoken approval for cutting corners, "minor" deceptions to boost numbers and questionable decisions that hurt customers and, ultimately, the business.
He lasted several years in that role and exited the company with a golden parachute, but never shook the stigma of deception.
Survival Tactic: The key when working or dealing with a phony is truth and integrity. Deception is not a sustainable practice in work or life. The truth will set you free.
4. The deal maker.
After the first company I worked for was acquired, the operationally-minded CEO of the acquiring parent organization asserted that it had every intention of keeping the enterprise together and growing it into an industry powerhouse.
That vision didn’t last three quarters and an outsider with a reputation as a "deal-maker" was brought in as CEO. I had dual-reporting responsibility to him and the president of the company’s largest and most-profitable business unit.
Within the span of three quarters, the deal-maker CEO had parsed the company into three divisions and announced divestitures of several strategic assets and business units. It was a fire sale.
Survival Tactic: I was given the option of staying with the parent company—which ultimately declared bankruptcy despite all its divestitures—or sticking with the business unit that had a high-functioning leadership team that I knew and trusted.
I choose my friends and colleagues over corporate, and would make the same decision today.
The key to surviving the deal-maker who views employees as an asset class or a row of ciphers to be excised, is the quality of relationships you have with co-workers and peers.
5. The ghost.
This boss was an individual whom I personally liked and respected. I got along famously with this executive vice president the first three weeks he was on the job. Our offices where right next to each other.
Then he disappeared for 18 months.
He was constantly “traveling.” He never replied to emails from anyone. He never participated in conference calls or webinars. He never attended meetings – I had to serve as his surrogate.
No one ever knew where he was, including the CEO who ultimately tapped me to handle the ghost’s responsibilities after nearly 16 months.
Then almost 18 months to the day, the EVP showed up at my office and took me to lunch to tell me he was leaving the company and I was to assume his responsibilities, as if he had orchestrated my promotion from afar.
Survival Tactic: When your boss is MIA, you have to step-up and be the face for the group. It will stretch you but a key trait of a leader is being self directed, knowing what needs to be done and then getting it done.
While there are many types of bad bosses, there are also many types of tactics to not only survive but thrive under them.