I'm a senior manager at a midsized company that merged last year with a rival. The new board voted to consolidate operations on the ground but keep the top leaders of both companies in place. The trouble is, the top dogs are both "alpha males" and have spent the past year trying to undermine the efforts of the other. This leaves me in a precarious position: If I please the pit bull, the Rottweiler is convinced I'm disloyal. If I do the Rottweiler's bidding, the pit bull sees a plot to oust him. I can take direction, but not when it's coming from opposing sides. Should I approach the board with my concerns, choose sides, or just try to ride things out until it becomes obvious that the current situation isn't working?
THE FIRST ANSWER
The Integrity Group, Vancouver
Some important information is missing: Do you formally report to both "top dogs," or only one of them? Is keeping both of them on as "leaders" temporary? Regardless, it is never good to be caught in the middle of a corporate civil war like the one you describe, so it is encouraging that you have identified how precarious your position could be.
Doing nothing at this juncture is not the right approach if the current situation is having an impact on the way you do your job; from what you have said, it is, since there appears to be a problem with your receiving clear and consistent direction from the higher-ups. If you wait until matters come to a head, it might be too late then to salvage key relationships in your company. Finally, choosing sides could be disastrous because regardless of your choice, the other "alpha male" will likely view this as a direct assault on his leadership, and if it turns out you chose unwisely, you can be sure you will be shown the door along with the losing "top dog."
Going to the board is problematic since that group decided to keep two individuals at the helm in the first place. If the executives are informed that you have gone over their heads in this manner, they will not respond kindly to what they will no doubt perceive as an act of disloyalty.
The only workable solution here is the direct approach: If there is any possibility of talking to the two leaders to clarify your role and lines of communication, you should pursue that – and codify it in writing to protect yourself. I doubt that this will come as a surprise to either of them since they are both engaged in such an open power struggle. If you don't take that kind of approach, you run the very real risk of being collateral damage in this executive dog fight.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Human resources executive, Atlanta
You are in a difficult situation but, for better or worse, politics is a part of business and life. If you want to be successful in business, you need to be able to survive these types of situations by navigating them effectively.
You have choices, but you should figure out your desired end game first. Consider the consequences, whether you go to the board, ride it out or leave. If you go to the board, you might be viewed as someone with great courage, or someone resisting their vision for change. If you leave you might be giving up a great opportunity to be a part of reinventing a business. Waiting it out however, might be incredibly stressful depending on your tolerance for office intrigue.
Or you could consider another option. Choose not to try to please either leader. Always start with the higher order of what is good for the business to frame your discussions and actions. Use data to communicate your decisions and recommendations. Facts are your friends, particularly when there are multiple agendas and disagreement among stakeholders. When you experience opposing behaviours, remind these leaders of their shared responsibility, to ensure the growth of the business and the development of their staff.
This will be a great way to build credibility with both leaders, keep your integrity intact and maybe help you actually get some things done in an obviously dysfunctional leadership environment.
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