Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What Companies Might Do About A Difficult Manager

I am not really qualified to talk about any business other than advertising.  As a single industry recruiter, I have been gathering names for years.  I interview candidates and when they tell me about terrible managers – defined below – I merely keep a mental note of who they are and what makes them poor managers.

What I cannot understand is why companies put up with them. These executives cause excessive turnover, make their businesses less profitable as a result, and help create a negative climate for all employees within their company.  Sadly, many companies, pass this off as simply part of the cost of doing business; their agencies wrongly think that clients are wedded to them and are afraid to upset the apple cart and do anything about the situation.  These managers do more harm than good by creating extensive negative word of mouth about their company.  I can think of one agency senior executive who was so disliked that it became difficult to recruit for the entire agency - at every level, but especially at more senior levels.  I can think of another creative director who was so abusive to women that his agency was sued multiple times. Yet in both cases the agency was afraid to do anything about the situation. 

Bad managers seem to have many traits.  They are ill tempered.  Their standards are often unrealistic and unattainable (even by themselves).  They are intolerant and only accept things done their way.  They take credit for everything and give none (or little) out.  They are often workaholics. They often manage up well, but down poorly. Sometimes they are screamers.  Sometimes they say nothing, but show their disdain by making faces or snide comments. They make co-workers uncomfortable. And often, their actions are reprehensible. 

Why do companies put up with this?  

In advertising, which is a service business, these bad managers often have strong client relationships or may be, in the case of creative people, very prolific and talented. Often, they are perceived to control a business.  Consequently, more often than not, they are left alone by management.  After all, if clients are happy with them, why do anything which might jeopardize an account?  

Ironically, ignoring the problem only contributes to the problem and makes it worse.  Often, these bad managers become worse because they believe they are invulnerable.

I can think of one manager who was a sensational senior account person, but treated everyone under him terribly.  Even so, clients loved him and management respected his abilities. He had a wild temper, suffered extreme mood swings and was generally considered unpleasant by those who worked for or with him. Turnover under him was extremely high.  But he controlled several of the agency’s largest accounts.  Everyone was afraid to confront him or speak to him for fear he might leave and that would jeopardize the business.  Perhaps, if he left, he might even be able to take business with him.

But the truth is, he was costing the agency a fortune in terms of turnover and negative publicity.  Because clients liked him so much, the agency was reluctant to upset the balance.  Then along came a very smart and effective human resources director.  He obtained permission from management to handle the situation and promised that there would be no repercussions.   When confronted properly, the account manager recognized he had a problem and was willing to deal with it.  The HR director sent him for intensive counseling and, ultimately, it worked.  I am not sure, but I believe he was put on mood medication.  And guess what?  Problem solved.  In a very short time the account guy actually became a model manager.  It was a great solution.

I have observed over the years that fear of these employees is often unfounded.  They are not invulnerable and, if the agency is well managed, rarely can take an account with them or otherwise do real damage to the company.

There are many solutions to a difficult manager. Coaching and therapy can go a long way to help the company and the manager.  And it is far less expensive than the cost of high turnover and negative publicity.


  1. Paul, I love reading "View From Madison Avenue" as you deal with universal issues. I don't know if you remember my "Bus Theory of Management".............what would you do if he/she was hit by a bus?

    I'm far away from the fray but join you in not understanding why anyone has to put up with unpleasant people under their control.

    Happy New Year.


    1. Indeed, Doug, I know that theory and subscribe to it. I suspect people put up with nastiness because it is easier and requires less effort than doing something about it.


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