Mailbag: What should you do if you report to an underperforming executive?
Recently, an email came in asking what to do when you report into a mediocre or underperforming executive. I’ve gotten variants of this question a number of times over the years, and it’s worth digging into a bit:
Have you written anything about working in middle management where you are managing a high performing team but under a low performing executives? How do you demonstrate your value to the broader organization so that your team remains motivated, and you can eventually move across groups?
Before answering the question itself, it’s worth mentioning that almost all middle managers are periodically frustrated with their executive’s performance. This is natural, because the executive’s job is balancing frustration across their organization to sustainably accomplish the business’ goals. If you think about an executive who has the budget to grow one of their six teams, five of those teams will probably feel they’ve made the wrong decision, so whether they made the right decision can’t be judged wholly by sentiment. (Acknowledging that whether teams feel good or bad about the decision probably depends more on how the executive messages the decision than on the actual decision itself.)
That’s not to say that most executives are effective, many executives aren’t, it’s just a warning against evaluating their performance from your perspective. There may be missing context that’s contributing to their seemingly odd decision making. With that caveat out of the way, time to answer the actual question: what should you do if you report to an underperforming executive?
First, build cross-functional relationships so you don’t depend on your executive for information and access. Go out of your way to be helpful to other executives, and show up prepared to forums where those executives are present. When a company does performance review or layoffs or hiring plans, generally the full executive team has input on the plan, so having advocates outside of your direct reporting chain goes a long way.
Second, don’t spend time trying to get the company to recognize the executive’s underperformance. I wrote about this a bit in Hard to work with, but it’s generally my experience that companies and executives are aware of performance issues and have chosen not to address them for whatever reason (e.g. the underperformer is good at something else, their manager is conflict-averse, etc). You will only burn your own reputation by trying to undermine your manager.
Next, executives tend to underperform in two ways: they either overly detached or they micromanage. Detached executives create a lot of room for you to lead within your team, and use something like Model, document, share to drive change outside your team’s scope. In these scenarios you can simply recreate the missing organizational elements and run them within your team. It’s a lot of work, but you can maintain a goals process, performance process, etc, and you can definitely use this approach to keep teams engaged.
Micromanaging executives are a bit trickier to figure out, because you need to understand why they are micromanaging. Sometimes micromanagement is poorly communicated feedback that you are not performing well. Sometimes it’s just a bad habit. Dig in and try to figure out what’s driving it.
Finally, have an honest conversation with yourself about the situation. Sometimes underperforming executives move on quickly (you can tell because they have a career history of one to two year stints), but generally companies are loathe to exit executives because it can cause a fair amount of turmoil. Unless this executive has a history of early departures, then you need to decide what’s right for you while assuming that they’ll still be around.