Dear Nonprofiteer, Here’s the new boss, same as the old boss

Gentle readers: The Nonprofiteer is in reactive mode. As long as you keep sending her these requests for advice, she’ll keep answering them.

Dear Nonprofiteer,

The “beloved” ED of our nonprofit agency is retiring for health reasons after 3 decades. As his longtime 2nd in command I felt quite qualified and planned to apply for his position. I met individually with other staff members to let them know my intentions and to listen to their thoughts about my trying to replace the only boss the agency has ever had.

The ED found out I had talked to other staff members. He was VERY angry with me and said he was recommending someone else from outside the agency (who I later found out was an old friend of his). He warned me not to attempt to politic with staff or Board for the position. Though I disagreed with him, I complied because I hoped for his blessing in my attempt to move up. I reminded him how the agency had grown threefold since he hired me, and said perhaps it had something to do with my leadership as well. He replied that I was as welcome to apply as anyone else, but left me feeling that it was futile.

He had been allowed to remain as CEO for the past several years despite being hospitalized for months at a time. He never chose, nor did the Board require him, to name an interim director. (He apparently convinced them he could manage just fine via email or phone.) In effect, he was being paid to be on medical leave, coming into work about 3 or 4 days each month, and some months not at all.

During the time he was out sick, I strongly considered leaving the agency over what I considered to be preferential treatment. Eventually I became so concerned about the impact of this CEO neglect that I contacted a Board member I trusted. I told her that the boss’s being absent and receiving full pay didn’t sit well with me and others in the agency. This Board member said she too had considered resigning over this. I said I wasn’t asking her to take any action but just to be aware that if the agency started crumbling, I shouldn’t be the fall guy (I expected the ED might try to make me that, as he is quite adept at assigning fault elsewhere).

To get to the point: I still applied for the position, and was selected for an interview along with two external candidates, one of whom was the ED’s recommended hire. I received a “polite” interview, without a single tough or probing question. During the interview I considered relating my concerns about bullying behavior, preferential treatment, and ethical issues, including whether the ED had made a deal with his friend for continued consulting fees and whether his plan to stay on as CEO of one of our subsidiaries would provide him with unnecessary compensation. I was concerned, though, that to bring this up would make me appear to be tearing him down to get his job. So I kept the interview positive, hoping my loyalty and commitment might still somehow still override the ED’s recommendation. But as I expected, I was not hired and the ED’s friend was.

I waited a week to get over my disappointment, but my ethical concerns just would not go away. The Board member I had spoken with earlier emailed me a note of support, but I could sense she was politically outnumbered. In addition, I fully realized the other candidate was also very qualified and had been politicked for months by the ED.

Nonetheless I replied to the Board member, sharing with her more details of my concerns, including what it had been like trying to keep the agency together with no real leadership during the CEO’s extended sick leave. I never accused the CEO or Board of doing anything illegal, just listed my ethical and behavioral concerns. I also stated that, despite my disappointment, I agreed to support the new CEO as long as I felt this person was indeed ethical. I passed this on more to clear my conscience than to attack anyone.

I also know that I have NEVER been insubordinate to the ED. I’ve done everything I’ve been asked and with a high degree of quality I might add and have received nothing but top notch performance evaluations in all my years.

The Board member was going to recommend that the Board president meet with me personally. That was 3 days ago, and I’ve yet to hear from anyone. I expect they are either afraid to talk to me, or they may be planning to fire me for all I know. The last thing I wanted was to appear I was bringing all this up out of bitterness for not being hired but I’m afraid that is how it might be perceived now.

Any advice about this situation? Did I act properly? Do I have legal protection against retaliation?

Signed,

In It Up to My Eyeballs

Dear Eyeballs,

If you don’t consider it insubordinate to go to one of your boss’s bosses and describe him as an unethical waste of space on a crowded planet, we must have different definitions of the term. However, insubordination is often a useful characteristic in agencies where people are nice at the expense of being effective or ethical, and yours might be one of those.

Here’s the deal, though: you wanted his job and you didn’t get it. You’d badmouthed him a little bit before the interview, but you’ve badmouthed him a whole lot since things didn’t go your way. Of course this is going to look like sour grapes, whatever your motivation and however strong your evidence against the CEO. And given that the new CEO is a buddy of the old one, and that the old CEO will be staying around in another capacity, you’ve made your own position impossible no matter how fervent your protestations that you don’t have it in for these guys but just want the Board to know what’s happening.

Did you handle it correctly? Well, let’s take this one step at a time: talking to other staff members about your desire to succeed the current CEO was perfectly appropriate once the fact of succession was announced: it wasn’t like you were going around saying “They ought to fire that guy and replace him with me.” (Were you?) His anger in that situation most likely reflected the fact that his career was coming to an end for a reason not of his own choosing. Long-time and founding Executive Directors often have trouble letting go, even when they get to choose the timing, and being forced out by illness must be even more galling. It probably wasn’t realistic of you to expect his blessing once he’d reamed you out for taking steps in support of your own advancement, but it certainly didn’t do any harm to ask for it.

(It seems pretty ungenerous of you, by the way, to be so unsympathetic to his efforts to continue to work during his illness. Certainly the situation was far from ideal, and certainly the difficulties of that situation fell on you, but it would have been a bit much to expect to Board to fire a sick man who’d given 30 years to the agency. That’s not “preferential treatment” unless the Board refused sick leave to another person who’d contributed as much.)

Then you got the job interview and it didn’t include the questions you’d hoped for. Here you’re at fault for excess passivity: if you wanted them to ask you “tough questions” about the agency’s trajectory and future, you should have figured out a way to express your opinions on those subjects as responses to their softball questions. No one gets to be Big Chief by demonstrating what a loyal second-in-command he’s been–just ask Al Gore. You get to be Big Chief by demonstrating chiefly qualities, like the ability to make a conversation reflect your agenda. You probably wouldn’t have gotten the job in any case, but you would have presented your best case.

Well, you say, those “tough questions” would have made me touch on problems with the previous administration. Maybe so, but only obliquely, while you focused on what opportunities you saw for the agency that it hadn’t yet pursued, what challenges you saw that it hadn’t yet addressed, and so on. No need to get personal: what employers (especially Board members) want to hear is not What are the problems? but What are the solutions?

And then you didn’t get the job and very unwisely decided to blab your concerns about old ED all over the place. The Board probably won’t fire you: that’s really not its place, just as it wasn’t your place to go to the Board, whose only choices are to back the CEO or fire him. (It’s not really allowed to pick “conspire with subordinates” instead.) But I guarantee you that either old ED or his buddy new ED will find a way to show you the door, and soon.

So take all the energy you’re now expending worrying about conflicts of interest and evil cabals, and use it to find a new job. Then, once you’re actually leaving, if you feel the need to write a valedictory statement outlining all the things wrong with the agency and what you think the Board should do to correct them, knock yourself out. They’ll probably pay no attention, but it will free your mind.

And take this to heart: in any situation, even one much less fraught than yours, a second-in-command has a very poor chance of being promoted. Boards like to go outside for fresh leadership, especially if they’re faced with replacing someone who’s been there for years and years. It’s hard to persuade them both that you’ve been a dynamite sidekick for the way things have been going AND that you’d be a dynamic force in taking the agency in an entirely new direction.

The Nonprofiteer hasn’t practiced law since around the time your ED got his job, so she won’t opine about your legal protection from retaliation. She will, however, point out gently that the costs of vindicating yourself in the courts outweigh by a factor of at least 10 the benefits of pursuing your remedies there. Even where there’s whistleblower protection, it’s only worthwhile if the violating institution has assets from which you can receive compensation. Most social service agencies don’t qualify.

Bring this chapter of your life to a close and move on. And at your new job: try not to work for someone for whom you have utter contempt. It really wears a person down.

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6 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Here’s the new boss, same as the old boss”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I too am not a super expert in retaliatory discharge law, but I read some of the cases for my work and I agree with the Nonprofiteer that the LW does indeed have no “legal protection against retaliation.” Judges want a smoking gun of righteousness before they will say your rights were violated when you lost your job; they will also worry about the modest fisc of a social service agency whose funds go to poor people. It’s possible that the LW if terminated could extract a modest severance payment, but I think a threat to sue wouldn’t be taken too seriously.

  2. Jean Butzen Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer, I think you really hit the nail on the head. This is such a great analysis of how people (I am no different than the person in this case), can get their ethical position all turned around. Thanks for this posting – I am saving this posting.

  3. Vicki Says:

    Thanks for a very good assessment of this person’s situation. I’m always impressed by Nonprofiteer’s ability to isolate the important issues.

    I would, however, like to add that I believe this ED’s behavior to have been ridiculous. Using one’s anger at a health problem to piss on someone in their employ, however understandable, is egregiously unprofessional. I have a lot less sympathy than you for someone who tries to work when they can’t, doesn’t officially assign their “side-kick” authority to take over as an interim, isn’t at all appreciative of the extra work another is doing due to his own disability, then is angry when that person attempts to take the authority they should have had all along. Please!

    Unfortunately, my advice to Eyeballs is just the same as yours … missed opportunity to take charge at the interview, so move on and use the lesson learned in future endeavors.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Vicki, Your points are well taken–it’s certainly irresponsible of the Executive Director not to recognize the costs his illness is imposing on the agency, and with a second-in-command like Eyeballs standing right there it seems deliberately destructive to refuse to name him/her as the interim or acting ED. In fact, it raises the question whether ED has had it in for Eyeballs all along, and has blocked his/her path for advancement wherever possible.

      The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to permit a disabled worker to continue to hold his job. What those accommodations might have been in this circumstance is open to question, but the Board should have addressed the issue rather than assuming that the ED was the best judge of what he was able to do in his reduced condition.

  4. Bruce Says:

    Great response from Nonprofiteer.

    The situation described seems to me to have been the perfect place for an interim executive director.

    The executive service corps of Chicago has recruited and trained a group of very experienced women and men who have been serving in this role now for a couple of years. It’s modeled after a program developed by several main line Protestant denominations who actually require that when a pastor leaves a church the church is required to have an trained interim pastor for one year.

    Interim executive directors are able to deal with issues and problems in the staff and organization and get the entire organization ready for a new director. The rule is that the interim cannot be hired as the executive director so that issue is off the table from the start.

    I have seen numerous nonprofits immediately hire a new executive director when the founding director retired or left. In each case it was a complete disaster for the organization and the new director. In each case I am convinced an interim director would have been the best next step.

    If your organization is making a leadership change, talk to the executive service corps about their program, you will not regret it.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Bruce, Thanks for this idea. The interim executive director model can be a useful one, especially for agencies whose outgoing EDs have been there virtually forever. Those are environments in which questions have not been raised for years about what the agency is trying to do and for whom and whether it’s succeeding, and an interim ED can ask those questions without fear or favor. As a consultant, the Nonprofiteer is attracted to the idea: it’s organizational-development consulting writ large.

      But how should an agency go about figuring out when an interim ED is appropriate and when such a person would simply represent an extra delay of hard decisions? If a group has just completed a strategic plan at the time the retiring ED heads out the door, then it may be worthwhile simply to hire the kind of person best suited to enacting the strategic plan, without passing go or collecting an interim ED.

      On the other hand, that describes perfectly the disaster into which the Nonprofiteer fell when hired to succeed a long-time ED–and what she discovered was that there was no true buy-in to the strategic plan by the staff or the clients. Without that, no matter how clear and enthusiastic the Board was about what needed doing next, the experience was–just as you say–an unmitigated disaster.

      So let’s leave it like those drug commercials on tv: ask the Executive Service Corps whether an Interim Director is right for you!

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