Ask Lucas... How do you handle the CEO going behind your back?

Dear Lucas, "Our CEO has hired a PR firm on the sly to boost her own profile in a boardroom power struggle. How can I fulfill my duties to my employer but still retain an effective working relationship with such a key stakeholder?"

There are many reasons your CEO might have decided to hire a PR firm without telling you, but it doesn’t sound good. Three questions spring to mind: How is your relationship with the CEO? Why do you think she felt the need to cut you out of the picture? And how are your relationships with other senior executives?

If you think you have a good relationship with her, the motive for the hiring is puzzling. As to why she decided to go behind your back, the answer could be a simple but deeply concerning one: she doesn’t trust you. If that’s the case, you’ll have your work cut out to address the problem, and it may already be too late.

In any event, you need to know, so you should ask her. Understanding her motives could provide you with clues on how to best manage the situation, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Having raised the subject and, hopefully, getting a convincing answer, you could offer to work with the PR firm on its assignment while continuing to ensure the best interests of the company and its stakeholders are taken care of.

Also, you should engage in a sanity check with the most senior member of management with whom you have a good relationship. It’s possible you are being paranoid about what could be a straightforward appointment. The CEO may have a project she wants handled separately and, while the fact she hired a PR firm without your knowledge is troubling, it’s possible the reason is quite different.

However, if your fears are well founded and the CEO purposely excluded you to advance her own agenda, her behavior could prove deeply damaging to the organization. If you do nothing, you will have failed in your primary responsibility to protect and enhance the firm’s reputation. And if the CEO succeeds in her power struggle, you are probably going to be out of a job anyway.

Bottom line is you need to have a frank and constructive conversation with the CEO, and you also need to address the issue appropriately with other members of senior management. Being caught between a rock and a hard place is never comfortable but, in the words of one of my former chairman, it’s the life you chose.

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