Case Study: The CEO’s Right-Hand Person Shouldn’t Have Been
Updated: Feb 15
The main character in this story was the COO of a high‐tech company, of middle‐market size.
The CEO was extremely ambivalent about the COO’s performance—sometimes he saw her as overwhelmed and even incompetent, and sometimes he saw her as over‐burdened with an over‐sized job that should be scaled back.
When under pressure (which was most of the time by then), the COO’s interpersonal skills went right down the drain. She became judgmental, impatient, and punitive.
The CEO finally admitted that he’d lost all objectivity over the matter. He asked us to come in and assess the COO and her situation and then advise him about a course of action.
Key Background Information
We knew that this was a delicate matter, for at least a couple of reasons. For one, there was something unusual about the relationship between the CEO and the COO, which we never completely deciphered.
For another the COO’s self‐esteem was shaky, as a result of the situation, of her relationship with the CEO, and of a long history of feelings of personal insecurity.
We learned that she had been a wonderfully accomplished educator, in her former life. Yet, this COO gained less and less satisfaction, the higher she climbed through the management ranks. A hypothesis of a career path disconnect began to emerge.
Probably the most complicating factor was the COO’s quickly eroding ability to handle the CEO’s management style—he was alternately caring/charismatic and temperamental/moody hypercritical.
In‐depth interviewing and the results of a comprehensive assessment battery (that analyzed such things as work style, interpersonal style, motivational dynamics, vocational interest profile, and so forth) laid a solid foundation for the work we needed to do with this candidate.
There was a great deal of information—both qualitative and objective—that pointed toward a conclusion that this COO was not a good fit for an operational role of this scope. In fact placing herself on a management path had been a poor life decision—it wasn’t really who she was as a person.
It was quite challenging together to look at these options because it made her feel like a quitter—not an uncommon reaction in this type of situation.
Ultimately, however, her deteriorating emotional status “forced” her to consider some concrete changes.
Reluctantly, the candidate came to the realization that she was doing herself (and the organization) a disservice by remaining in the COO role.
Fortunately, there was an in‐placement option for her to consider—to assume the role of Vice President of Human Resources.
The CEO was coached on how to be supportive of this move, including retaining a consultant to assist the COO in setting up improved HR systems and processes.
The HR consultant was a refreshing change as a mentor—he was gentle, supportive, and avuncular—quite different from the CEO.
In the end the candidate handled the human resources role measurably better than the operations role. A vast improvement over where she had been twelve months earlier.