When Your CEO Comes Under Fire

Posted on October 19, 2016.

Sadly, Wells Fargo’s CEO John Stumpf's resignation is only the latest in a laundry list of major company CEOs who have been forced out. Just in the last 2 years, we’ve seen:

·      Volkswagon’s CEO Martin Winterkon resign over the installation of software used to trick the EPA

·      Toshiba’s CEO Hisao Tanaka resign due to the overstatement of earnings

·      Priceline’s CEO Darren Huston resign due to an inappropriate affair with an employee

And that’s not the half of it.  I only included some of the major company names you’ve likely to heard of, but there are plenty more.  So if you work for Wells Fargo, Volkswagon, Toshiba or Priceline, what do you do to keep your employees engaged and morale high?

·      Filter your “Talking Points”: Most large companies provide their associates with these FAQs, which can sometimes sound like the writer has the company  “Kool-Aid” hooked up to an IV. Companies forget that employees and customers will also be seeing external media reports of the CEO under fire. Take the time to acknowledge what has been written or reported and try to put the best possible spin on it. But don’t read these points verbatim. Give your folks credit for having some common sense.

·      Focus on your world.  Try to keep the external noise out of the day-to-day mission of your team. Reinforce the goals and provide positive feedback on the worked they’ve accomplished so far. Remind them that while the CEO may be under fire your team has performed in an exemplary fashion.

·      Keep the corporate code of conduct front and center.  The transgressions of a few folks should not be a reflection on the ethics of the rest of the company.  Even in the case of Wells Fargo, where over 5,000 employees were involved, it represents a small percentage of the total work force.  When the company makes front page news for the wrong reasons, it’s a good time to remind your team that the values of the organization are still intact and it’s your expectation that they live by them every day.

People complain today about CEO compensation, and I think it’s a fair discussion to have.  Compensation should be a reflection of shareholder value. But when you see the fall of someone like John Stumpf,  you realize that the buck really does stop there. Some of their compensation is also for the risk they take for being ultimately responsible for what over 200,000 employees may do at any time.

Your job as a manager is to lead your team through the controversy, stay focused on the job at hand and above all, remain positive and bullish about the company. If you can’t do that, you probably need to follow your CEO out the door.