Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Your Employee is Too Ambitious

It's a classic business tale that happens all too often. The CEO trains an underling to become a loyal second-in-command and then, one day, the underling attempts to unseat the CEO in order to gain the number one position. The automatic response of the boss is to show number two the door. Should that be the appropriate response?

Truth be told, every situation has to be judged by itself. Certainly, a person who feels threatened will respond in a defensive manner. But let's examine the situation a little more closely.

There are several reasons for training the underling. First of all, one role of a manager is to train employees. Secondly, ambition in senior employees is healthy for the organization. You want the people with drive to be in leadership roles. They help inspire others. A central question is whether that ambition is good for the organization or just for the individual.

Healthy ambition should be channeled appropriately. In fact, helping an employee – even a top level one – chart their career is important. Working toward a career goal can add to the person's drive. However, open communication is all part of the process. Just as a CEO should share visions with the staff, so the staff should be encouraged to reciprocate.

On the other hand, one does not want to be naïve. True that none of us remains at the job forever. An eventual successor will be necessary at some point. However, you should choose that point in time, not the successor. Therefore, it makes good sense to keep your eyes open. A common tactic to usurp power is to "make the boss look bad." Therefore, keep detailed records of meetings and conversations. Don't reveal all the secrets to your trusted aides. A few trump cards in your pocket may be necessary to help maintain order and stability. Remember that trust is mutual. If one side destroys that trust, the rules of the game change and you're the one in charge.

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