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Hosted by Tom Henschel

Managing Disruptive Executives


September 2015

A division president must manage a leader widely known to be a loose cannon. Being conflict averse, the president gets help from his coach who shares five ideas for dealing with the disruptor.

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September 2015

Managing Disruptive Executives

Tom Henschel

A dangerous loose cannon

Phil was a surprising choice to lead a worldwide division. A thin, rather elegant man, he was known to be conflict averse. He was three years into his role, and I wondered how he fared among his peers, all of whom were experienced turf fighters.

But I wasn’t there to help Phil. I was there to listen to Phil talk about Marlene. Marlene had been in her leadership role twelve years. Phil had inherited her. She was widely known as a loose cannon. Wherever Marlene went, emotional upheavals and dramatic resignations followed.

I had coached one of Phil’s other direct reports—not Marlene!—and Phil had been impressed with the results. Now he’d invited me to lunch to propose an idea.

“What if you did a team building event with me and all my direct reports?” he asked, after we’d caught up.

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “But why now? You haven’t done one before, have you?”

“Not really.”

“If you did one now, what would you want to get out of it?”

Phil listed many reasons—helping the team perform better and such—but it always came back to Marlene. He wanted the team building event so Marlene would stop being such a problem.

I asked, “Why come at this sideways, Phil? Why not address her issues directly?”

“You can’t address anything directly with Marlene. She goes nuclear and then there’s fallout for days. Sometimes months. I’ve given up on ever talking to Marlene directly.”

When I didn’t respond right away, he asked, “You don’t agree?”

The need for courage and skill

I looked at him and smiled. “There’s no ‘right’ answer when it comes to people like Marlene. Here’s what I’ve learned. Dealing with people like her requires a whole lot of courage and a whole lot of skill.”

He smiled. “Well, I’m not courageous. I’d rather avoid a fight than have one.” Then, after a second he added, “But maybe I’m not courageous because I don’t have the skills I need.”

“That reminds me of me when I was a newbie consultant. I was faced with someone like Marlene and, well, I got massacred.”


“The woman’s name was Olivia. She was more junior than Marlene and even more out of control.”

“That’s a scary thought!”

“Some other consultant had landed this gig. It was supposed to be a training about accountability, but the real target was Olivia. Somehow the job got handed to me and I didn’t know enough to turn it down.

“So here I am, early one morning, all by myself, starting this training with a team I don’t really know. And everyone’s in the room except guess who.”

“Olivia,” said Phil.

“Bingo! So I start anyway. Then, about twenty minutes later, the door bangs open and here comes Olivia. Of course, she doesn’t slip into the room quietly. No! Getting herself situated is a big production that hijacks the training. In my head, I know this is a test. The team is looking at me wondering, am I going to call her on her lateness? Or this big disruption? I know I should. But my courage fails me. I don’t say anything. So Olivia wins round one.

“I’m flooded with embarrassment and shame. I know I have to win round two or lose everyone’s respect.

“Well, round two comes way sooner than I want. Less than ten minutes later, she takes offense at something someone says and starts crying and making wild accusations. I’m listening, terrified. I know I have to speak up. This is my moment, right? So I speak. I put on my best facilitator voice and engage Olivia reasonably.” I stopped and smiled at Phil.

“Not so good?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? I was like an amateur up against a heavyweight. She turned on me, accusing me, crying, hysterical. And then, she gathered up her stuff and stormed out.”

“I bet that’s what she wanted all along—to get out of there.”

“I’ve had the same thought,” I said. “But nevertheless, there I was in front of this group having failed in a major way.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I recovered as best as I could, but my credibility was completely shot. But afterwards, I thought that someone somewhere would’ve been able to handle her better. That person would’ve had the courage. And would’ve have had skills. So I got fierce about becoming that person.”

Phil thought a second, then said, “So you think that instead of doing a team event I should be learning those skills.”

“Maybe you’ll do both,” I said.

Naming the behavior

Phil already knew about these Executive Coaching Tips. I offered to email him a file of Tips detailing skills for dealing with people like Marlene. He eagerly accepted. If you’d like to see that file, click here. Just mention “Disruptive” and let me know your email address. I’d be happy to send it to you.

Then he said, “I get self-conscious when we talk about Marlene or Olivia. I hear us saying things like, ‘those people.’ It feels creepy, like a kind of bigotry. But I don’t know what else to call them.”

“That’s a great place to start building your skills, Phil. And your courage. Because you’re going to have to talk openly and directly about her behavior. That is going to require both courage and skill.”

“OK,” he said with a little gulp. “So how do you talk about people like—. There I go again! What do you say?”

“I don’t talk about her. I talk about her behavior and its impact. I use the word ‘disruptive.’ Or if I want to talk about people like Marlene and Olivia, I call them ‘disruptive executives.’ It feels accurate without being blaming or shaming. And I’d be comfortable using it in conversation with Marlene.”

“You’d say that to Marlene’s face? Tell her she’s disruptive? Oh, I definitely do not have the courage for that yet.”

“It takes practice, but you can do this, Phil. Think of ‘disruptive’—or whatever word you decide you want to use—as just another descriptor. Like her height. Or her eye color.”

“Oh, come on, Tom. It’s not the same at all!”

“You’re right. It’s not. And that’s what often stops us from talking about the behavior. We feel like whatever we say will be like a hand grenade. But here’s the skill: when you say the word, you want it to sound the same as any other part of her. She’s brunette. She’s five-seven. She’s got brown eyes. And her behavior is disruptive. Make all those descriptors sound the same.”

“I take the point, but…” He pulled out his phone and made a note. Then he said, “I don’t know which I need—more courage or more skill.”

A cultural issue

“Do you know another idea that helped me?” I asked. “Pretending it’s a cultural issue.”

“Cultural? How?”

“It’s natural to fall into judging disruptive people. We think, ‘They should know better.’ Or ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Or ‘They’re crazy.’ But when I started imagining it was a cultural issue, it was easier to stop all my judgments.”

“I’m not getting it yet.”

“I imagine the disrupter comes from somewhere else. I think to myself, ‘I have to be culturally sensitive with this person. It’s not her fault she doesn’t know our customs. She’s living her life the way she learned it. She may not know our rules.’”

“She does play by her own rules. That’s for sure. And, damn, I spend a lot of time worrying about her. ‘Is this going to set her off?’ ‘Maybe I should do that.’ It’s never-ending. And exhausting.”

“Like playing 3-D Chess,” I said in agreement.

3-D Chess—an unwinnable game

“3-D Chess? Is that a thing?”

“No. It’s just a phrase I use for agonizing situations that feel like there ought to be an answer but it’s impossible to figure out. When you play 3-D Chess, you always doubt yourself.”

“That’s me! What little courage I have goes out the window,” he said.

“What if you stopped playing?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Stop basing your behavior on how you think she’ll react.”

He looked at me as if I’d suggested that if he let go of his fork, it would float to the ceiling.

I went on.

“Stop imagining she’s your opponent. Play your own game. Take control of everything that’s yours: documentation, discussions with HR, calming down your team, modeling appropriate language, showing them you have courage around this issue.”

He nodded slowly. “I like the idea of not imagining she’s my opponent anymore. And I’d like to stop acting from fear. I’d like to have more courage.”

“I’m not suggesting you get callous and start provoking her. You know that, right?”

“No, I understand. I’ll give her the same amount of consideration I give my other direct reports. But not more just because I’m afraid of her.”

“Exactly,” I nodded.

“Which won’t be easy,” he finished.

He picked up his phone again and listed the five ideas we’d discussed about handling disrupters:

  • Be courageous. Tell her her impact.
  • “Disruptive” is direct without being inflammatory.
  • Say “disruptive” like “brown eyes.”
  • Pretend it’s cultural. Stop hoping she’ll play by the rules.
  • No more 3-D Chess. Stop worrying how she’ll react.

Helping the team

Phil and I also did three things to help him and his team.

First, we ended up having a team event focused on a behavioral self-assessment called DiSC. Each member of the team, including Marlene, completed the assessment.

Marlene was not Olivia. Throughout the team event she was engaged and lighthearted. Like her peers, she was curious about DiSC. (To see a sample DiSC report, click here.) There was good-natured teasing as different people read portions of their reports. Marlene threw out some good-natured teasing of her own. But no one teased her back. Like Phil, the team was scared of her.

Second, I met privately with each member of the leadership team, including Marlene. The stated reason was to debrief each person’s DiSC report, but Phil was interested in my assessment of Marlene as a coaching candidate. I told him I doubted she was a good candidate but was curious to have time with her.

Afterwards, I told Phil my session with Marlene had been rich. She was well aware, I said, that she was disruptive.

“She admitted that?” he said.

“In my experience, Phil, disrupters know their impact on others. I talked about it as if it were common knowledge…”

“Like her eye color.”

“…so, yes, she could admit to being disruptive. And, as I suspected, no, she is not a good candidate for coaching.”

He wanted to know why. I told him, which was an entire conversation by itself. The ideas I explained to Phil are in an Executive Coaching Tip called, “Who’s Coachable.”

Third, I continued to help Phil build his courage and skills. And I constantly questioned why he wasn’t acting more quickly to move Marlene out.

But Phil had his own timeline. It wasn’t until long after my work with him had ended that Phil finally offered Marlene a package and she took it. Not surprisingly, with Marlene gone, Phil, and the entire team, was better able to display The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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