Once upon a time, I had a boss that suggested I put a scapegoat in place…
An odd opening to a fairy tale. An even odder opening to a meeting.
When this occurred, I was on the short list for a very substantial promotion, the kind that makes your career. I was approaching what I thought was my professional apex. If I could just make the right moves I was sure I’d eventually be ascending to the CEO’s job.
Unfortunately, things weren’t going all that well behind the scenes. I’d killed a corporate growth initiative that had been on life support for several years – a necessary but unpopular move. Two corporate initiatives I’d been given responsibility for were stalling (one because my boss was inadvertently undermining it). A major capital spending project I’d launched was falling far behind schedule and there were doubts it would ever achieve its targets. And a couple of recent acquisitions – one I’d made and one I’d inherited when I’d walked into my present job – were failing to meet plan.
Even as I was peaking, I was in danger of crashing and burning.
My boss was offering me a way out, a way to potentially save myself and keep my career on track.
Diving down, going up
The offer was wrapped in plenty of rationalization. In my current position, I had plenty of things to worry about, and plenty of problems to take care of. The proposal was to stick an executive between me and the worst of the two lackluster acquisitions – an exec my boss didn’t care for – and let him either fix or fail in the role.
I wasn’t confused about the implications. This was, after all, the same boss that once told me when there was an ugly, messy problem I had a tendency to “dive down” into the details. He, on the other hand, “went up” meaning he distanced himself from the issue. At that time he was recommending I abandon my approach and follow his example.
The problem I had with his advice was that I found the “scapegoat” tactic morally repugnant.
I’d had a hand in creating the messes I was facing, and in my mind it should still be my responsibility to clean them up. While I knew I had been maneuvered into “taking ownership” for problems and solving them throughout my career, I felt I DID own these issues. It seemed wrong to shove another executive in front of a speeding train in a vain attempt to save myself.
At the same time, it wasn’t smart to refuse. While my boss stopped short of ordering me to put the exec in the job, I knew refusing could easily derail my career. Nobody likes a manager that can’t follow advice.
I was in a quandary.
Going down for the third time
It took me a while to sort through the situation. After several days of contemplation, I decided to follow my boss’s recommendation.
I’m not proud of it. While in the past I had largely avoided getting this politically aggressive and manipulating people to such an extent, I was now feeling desperate. In an attempt to keep my career from “going down for the third time,” I assigned the executive to fix the failing acquisition.
Later, I greatly regretted this decision.
The situation went from bad to worse. The acquisition continued to decline, going from modestly profitable to losing money. While this was happening new problems emerged within the same business unit – the firing of a plant manager uncovered a viper’s nest of problems at one of our biggest factories. It was taking months to sort through them and get the situation corrected.
At the same time, the executive I’d put in charge of fixing the acquisition was dragging his feet on an important decision – finding a new general manager for the business unit. While he did this out of conviction that we had the right person who just needed more time, the political situation was rapidly deteriorating. I was told by my boss in no uncertain terms that either the acquisition’s GM left, the VP he was reporting to was fired, or it was going to fall on my shoulders.
I didn’t do anything about this, and the resulting fallout hit me like a ton of bricks. Over the course of about two years I gradually went from heir apparent to excess baggage.
If you can’t save yourself….
The final nail in the coffin was a sharp downturn in the market, one that appeared to be deep and long. This was a problem by itself, and also exacerbated the other areas of weakness.
Soon, my corporate initiatives were stripped from me. My boss instructed me to bring in a manager to cover about half of my responsibilities – ostensibly to allow me more time to “focus” on the “problems.” I knew he was also making me “non-essential.”
I was on my way out and there was no stopping it.
At that point, I tried to salvage the careers of everyone I could. Mostly, I transferred people into different jobs as far as possible out of the line of fire. In some cases it worked, but when it came to the executive charged with the bad acquisition, he was terminated shortly after I was.
I still feel some slight vindication from saving a few.
The rearview mirror
A former mentor once told me you can’t drive a business by looking in the rearview mirror, but it sure is tempting to try to do so. Everything always looks simpler and clearer when you have the benefit of knowing how it turned out.
In this case I should have followed my heart rather than my head. I wish I’d never utilized the scapegoat strategy because all I managed to do was to drag someone else down with me.
Maybe it didn’t work because I couldn’t take it to the logical conclusion – firing the exec when the situation didn’t quickly improve. But I didn’t think he’d been given a fair chance to succeed.
Bottom line: I just couldn’t do it.
Security versus integrity can be a false choice. I thought I was buying security by compromising my sense of what was right, but in the end it did nothing to hold off the inevitable – and even that was only for a short time. In retrospect, I believe you should follow your own sense of what is right and reject easy outs and trick tactics. Your long term comfort with your decisions is more important than any battle you may currently be fighting. 31.2
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To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE. This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery. Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, was released in May of 2014. A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.
My books are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations. Most were inspired by real events.