Struggling with an unpopular CEO? This is what you should do

By Bianca Healey,

An unpopular CEO who has lost the support of staff can adversely affect morale and company culture – even turning it toxic. But what can be done if they refuse to budge?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been delivered a harsh critique by the Australian voters, according to a Fairfax Ipsos poll released over the weekend. The poll shows Turnbull’s personal popularity in free fall, declining 8 per cent since June and a remarkable 53 percentage points over the past year. According to the poll, an equal number of voters now either approve or disapprove of the way PM Turnbull is doing his job, which means that his net approval rating rounds out at zero.

A leader, even when effective, might well fall victim to wavering popularity due to behaviours that often come with the territory: indecisiveness, bullying, siloing or hoarding of information or even disengagement. The result? Failures in leadership can drag a CEO’s approval score to nil.

It’s a situation that Tim Baker, director and leadership consultant at WINNERS-at-WORK, consistently sees in his day-to-day work. In his experience, CEOs – because they have so much to do in a day – are susceptible to losing touch with their teams.

But how to turn the tide on an unpopular CEO? As an HR professional, Baker suggests it’s in your best interest to take the problem to the source before the situation turns toxic. Baker recalls one occasion where he was brought in as a leadership consultant for an 18 person executive team at an organisation. While there, he “got a very good sense” that the CEO had lost the confidence of the organisation.

“Throughout the interview process with each member of the management team, a thread of commonality appeared as it quickly became apparent that the CEO was out of touch with his team,” says Baker. While he felt an obligation to let this unpopular CEO know what was going on, Baker’s aware that not all HR professionals are able to take such a direct approach out of concern for personal relationships, as well as their own jobs.

Baker explained to the CEO that there was a general consensus that his management team didn’t feel like they were in the loop when it came to decision-making.

“I said ‘what you need to do is have a frank, one-on-one conversation with each of your team members to get a sense of what their particular concerns are.’ He took my recommendation on board, promising that he would book meetings with his management team after the Christmas break.

“I said to him, ‘With respect, you can’t afford to wait that long because morale is that low’,” says Baker.

As a direct result of the unpopular CEO having regular individual meetings with his team members, morale immediately improved, says Baker. “What we saw is that it was a culture change exercise as much as it was about morale.”

However, HR might not always be faced with a CEO as open to criticism. If a CEO is resistant to change, or an HR professional doesn’t have direct access to the CEO, Baker recommends a more indirect approach.

“If HR doesn’t have the clout, or relationship with the CEO, it could be a case for speaking to a senior manager who does have that one-on-one relationship with them,” he suggests.

Another option is to take a non-confrontational approach, such as 360-degree feedback where every member of a team gives advice across the board, or to put together a survey with specific questions that probe into the impact that the CEO’s actions have on the organisation as a whole.

“That way (much like an external consultant), the HR manager can reflect feedback given across the board rather than deliver it as though it’s coming straight from one person.”

What HR can do to turn the tide on unpopular CEO practices:

  1. Have courage: Communicate openly and honestly. Give an unvarnished appraisal of the CEO’s blind spots, or speak directly with a senior manager who can have a one-on-one with them.
  2. Give tangible solutions for methods to improve: This can include monthly one-on-one meetings with key staff built into their schedule. Offer evidence-based examples of improved morale and production at other organisations.
  3. If you can’t take a direct approach, engage in an indirect method: You might try 360-degree feedback to reflect the gaps in the CEO’s management directly back to them. This offers them the opportunity for self-reflection that’s not connected to one individual and allows them to make positive changes without feeling personally targeted for a particular failure of management.