New Leader Burning You Out? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work as a senior manager reporting to a new EVP who was brought in from outside the company. She has a lot less experience than I do. She constantly talks about how strategic she is, but all I see is a lack of discipline around execution—and she seems to have no memory. 

This is how it goes: She tells my peers and me what we need to be shooting for. We come back to her with our recommendations for how to get there. She disagrees with everything we propose, tells us how she wants us to execute, waits until we have everything set up and rolling, then comes back to us and tells us she wants it done differently—often the way we originally recommended.

When this happens, she doesn’t seem to remember that she is asking us to follow the original plan. She always acts like it is her idea. It is never-ending whiplash. We live in a state of constant crisis where I am talking my people off the ledge daily. We all end up putting in late nights and weekends and it is debilitating and demoralizing. When I complain, she tells me I am anti-change and I need to get with the program. 

I have worked in high pressure environments before and am good at managing stress. But dealing with this on top of lockdown, no lockdown, tighter lockdown, in-person school, online school, no holiday get-togethers this year, and kids at home underfoot all day, I am just so fried.

How can I get my leader to be more thoughtful and consistent? She doesn’t seem to care that because of her constantly changing orders, everyone in her department is burning out. 

Burning Out Fast

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Dear Burning Out Fast,

This does indeed sound like a constant game of “gotcha.” I hear versions of this kind of madness regularly, and you are right—it is hard enough in normal times, but on top of everything else it really makes you hang your head. It sounds like your new boss is at the very least, capricious, and at most, nuts. But it also sounds like she doesn’t change the goal as much as she changes the method by which you will achieve it. So you at least have that in your favor—the goals don’t change every ten minutes.

Please don’t be offended, but I have to ask whether you might have played a part in creating this situation. Is it possible you wanted the job and are mad that the person who was hired has less experience and is annoying to boot? Are you absolutely certain none of your upset is a little sour grapes? You may have to really look in the mirror and ask yourself. The fact that you aren’t alone, that your peers are in the same boat, is an indication that you probably are in the clear—but it won’t hurt for you to be absolutely certain about the answer before you decide how to proceed.

First line of defense here is to have the hard conversation. I know you would probably rather have dental work, but you owe it to yourself and your people to at least try. Be prepared with:

  • This is what has happened now, three times in a row.
  • This is the result of the constant change of plan.
  • I need you to start trusting that I know what I am doing and can make a good plan to give you what you want.
  • Can we try it once and see how it goes?

This approach could go okay, maybe? If she says, “No way, it’s my way or the highway,” then you know there is no hope. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

If she agrees, document the conversation carefully and email her the record of the conversation. That way, the next time she pulls a change order with no warning, you can refer to the email documenting your agreement and see if it helps. The memory slips are concerning, but the more prepared you are for them, the better off you will be.

If you try to have the conversation and she is not receptive, options to consider might be:

  • Go over your boss’s head and talk to her boss. Perhaps band together with your peers and stage an intervention. This is not a fun option, and can trigger any number of unintended consequences. But I have seen it work. I coached a CEO once who thought his new CFO walked on water until his whole team came to him and outlined their grievances. The behaviors they reported sounded outlandish, and then, when he looked closely, he saw some very concerning gaps in the finances, not to mention some very alarming things on the person’s computer. A complete train wreck was narrowly avoided—and if it hadn’t been for the courage of the team, things could have gotten really ugly.

The pattern of behavior you describe rings familiar. I wonder if your new boss is so out of her depth that she is trying to act like she knows what she is doing. Or perhaps she really is suffering from memory lapses and doesn’t realize it. When behavior is this erratic, it can be a symptom of substance abuse. I have seen it all, and if you think the behavior is that terrible, this option might be a good idea.

  • Ignore her plan and start executing the plan you recommended in the first place. This is risky, of course, because this could be the one time she breaks pattern. And it forces you to be dishonest, which might cause you even more stress. Some people would be okay with it as a means to an end. I am not judging. It would be a very personal decision for you.
  • Flesh out your recommended plan but proceed with her plan very slowly, knowing she will change her mind, and then move to the recommended plan quickly. I learned this one from a client who figured out how to do this out of sheer self-preservation. It turned out her boss had no idea what he was doing and eventually got fired, and she got promoted into the job. 
  • Brush up your LinkedIn profile and CV and start looking for another job. This all just may feel like too much noise that you have no patience for. It depends on how much you like the organization, if the mission of your work is compelling, and if you love your team. Many people in your position feel too guilty about abandoning their team to think about jumping ship, which is admirable. Again, you will have to weigh the good things against the crazy that you are putting up with. 

Best case: your boss really doesn’t know the impact she is having, and will listen to reason and see the error of her ways. (Okay, I just made myself laugh out loud with that one, because it is so rare. But, hey, it could happen!) Worst case: well—there are any number of ways this could go badly. In the end, you will have to do whatever it takes to take care of yourself and maintain your sanity.

And remember: this pandemic will end. Your children will go back to school. We will all be able to do holidays together again. You have no control over any of that. Your job situation, however, you do have some control over.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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