5150 Business Strategy

Life in the Corporate Fast Lane and Still Remaining Intelligent

Learn to Duck When Sh*t Hits the Fan


There must be a seminar, or course, that some managers take that teaches the fine art of having authority but ducking the responsibility. Especially when it comes to directing subordinates, or others, to perform duties which are unpleasant and/or which go sideways. It is a fine art which, in my opinion, reveals those who are unprepared and lack the leadership skills to be in a management position. Instead of stepping in to defend and justify actions of  a subordinate they have learned to duck, also known as being good at playing politics, and let the subordinate take the load of manure which rightfully belongs on them. Why has it become acceptable in some senior management circles to toss subordinates under the bus for their own shortcomings?

A case in point: at a landscape architecture company I was directed by the CFO to layoff one of the admin staff, let’s call her Marti,  due to lack of work. I had heard through the grapevine, but could never validate, that this CFO was not particularly fond of Marti. The rumor was that this CFO had frequent run ins with Marti when she first joined the company as controller and that Marti was the equivalent of employee number 1 –  she had been employed during the formative years and grew with the company. She was well liked and respected by all levels of the organization except the CFO.

Regardless, being the diligent soldier that I am, and seeing that there was sufficient justification for the layoff, I scheduled the termination call. The day comes and I inform Marti that her employment is being terminated. By the end of the day the CEO of the firm is demanding to know why Marti was let go. You see, the CEO and other senior management had built up a close relationship over time that, unknown to me, extended to giving Marti preferential treatment.

Do you think the CFO stepped in to explain that Marti was terminated at her request? Of course not,  not only did she not step in to accept responsibility but she had the gall to question the method followed for the termination. It was the most gutless move I had experienced in my career and displayed a lack of leadership that made it clear that this CFO could not be trusted. It was a turning point in my relationship with her and one which eventually led to my leaving the firm. It became clear that she would make decisions, and take actions, for political reasons at the expense of doing what was right. If you are reporting to someone like that you either decide to move on or become accustomed to being a human pin cushion. No doubt had this layoff been seen as overwhelmingly positive she would have been the first to step up and take responsibility for having the foresight to adjust staffing levels. Given the decidedly negative outcome, however, she was more than happy to duck the sh*t as it hit the fan.

It is the problem when on the job training is happening at the CFO level – she was unprepared and ill equipped to take responsibility for her decisions. A more capable manager knows that just as there is no responsiblity without authority that the inverse is just as true – when you have authority you should take responsibility for your decisions and defend those acting on your behalf.

Not too long after this the firm was acquired by a larger company. Being  “key” in the transition process, but as I had seen the true colors of the CFO,  I put little credibility in her assurances that I would be taken care of. No, there would be no more appointments to the ownership group – don’t worry other benefits would compensate you for not profiting on the sale of the company. Yeah right, and when Marti was let go you stood up for the decision you made. As it turns out even this was a blatant falsehood since shortly after I left the firm several other “key” staff were elevated to ownership. A case of once bitten, twice shy or – fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me. I am rarely fooled twice.


Lesson learned: take responsibility for the decisions you make and stand up for staff who implement those decisions.

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