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Are You a Contender?

The other day, I put my foot firmly in my mouth. It isn’t, I’m pleased to say, something that I do very often — or something that, when it does happen, I’m proud of. But this time, I didn’t feel all that apologetic. I was attending a board meeting of a company in the process of recruiting a CFO. Over the last few years, the business has grown in size and complexity. The legacy financial systems and processes are way behind the times — and so is the financial staff. The search for the new CFO marks the beginning of what we all hope will be a new financial regime.

The other day, I put my foot firmly in my mouth. It isn’t, I’m pleased to say, something that I do very often — or something that, when it does happen, I’m proud of. But this time, I didn’t feel all that apologetic.

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I was attending a board meeting of a company in the process of recruiting a CFO. Over the last few years, the business has grown in size and complexity. The legacy financial systems and processes are way behind the times — and so is the financial staff. The search for the new CFO marks the beginning of what we all hope will be a new financial regime.

In the meantime, however, we stagger on with old systems and interim staff. Which is where the problem lies. One interim accountant has applied for the CFO position. He won’t get the job because he isn’t good enough and the business needs some one with more experience and more authority. But no one has told him that. “It’s only fair,” I’m told, “that he gets the chance to apply.”

Really? The discrepancy between what’s wanted from the new person and what’s available in the existing staff is a yawning chasm. Our young accountant, however aspiring he may be, isn’t going to cross that chasm in an interview. He doesn’t know that because no one has the nerve to tell him. So everyone thinks it a kindness to let him fail.

I put my foot in my mouth when, looking forward to the next quarter, I commented, “We should have our new CFO by then.” Quickly, a fellow board member rushed to correct me: “Our permanent CFO” he said. “Oh, yes,” I confirmed, smiling — and gritting my teeth.

I hate it when companies lie to their staff, and I particularly hate it when they do it in public. I don’t think we’re doing the accountant a big favor in letting him think he has a shot at the job, when we all know that he doesn’t. I think the greater kindness would be to take him aside, explain in serious detail what it is that the business now needs and why, and let him draw his own conclusion. If he can’t see the writing on the wall, I think someone needs to tell him, not lie to him.

Why doesn’t this happen? Mostly, it’s because the management is conflict-averse and no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. That’s a problem in itself and a subject for a different article (or book!). But what is happening in this company is what I see way too often: weakness masquerading as kindness. To support the weakness, everyone has to lie, everyone else has to collude in the lie — and the currency of management is hopelessly devalued. That’s because the only real leadership currency any management has is trust. If your team trusts you, you can lead them. If they don’t, you can’t. And if they stop believing what you say — trust is a train that’s left the station.

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The accountant’s not wholly innocent either. I doubt whether he’s had the nerve to conduct the serious conversation about what’s needed and whether he’s the man for the job. This is what I call a mutually assured stalemate: Management won’t tell, and the employee won’t ask. They collude in each other’s delusions.

If your management is too weak to tell you the truth — this happens more often than any of us likes to acknowledge — then you really are better off trying to find it out for yourself. This takes a lot of courage, of course. But it stops you being passive and allows you to make your own decision, not wait, dependent on theirs.

But something else happened at this meeting that made me think. The accountant produced incomplete numbers. When challenged, he looked confused and surprised — he was sure he’d sent everything. This isn’t the behavior of a job candidate who thinks he’s a serious contender. This is the behaviour of someone who already knows he doesn’t have the job — and is mad. So mad, he’s already sulking, subverting himself.

The accountant should, of course, have a straight conversation about his prospects. That way he’d know where he stood. He might not like it — but he’d have the information he needs to make some decisions for himself. He could decide how to improve his work, how to make sure that next time he is a contender. Or he could think long and hard about what it is he really wants from his career: a permanent CFO role within an organization or a roving role with multiple clients? Both are viable careers but would feel a lot richer if they were his choice.

Bracing himself for the conversation would give the accountant the information he needs to make some choices. It would also put him in a position where, instead of subverting himself, he could shine. We’d all respect him for asking the hard questions — we might even start to wonder if we’d made a mistake about him. If he’s that mature, maybe we need him after all.