Handling a CEO Problem with Empathy

In this post, I share the story of how one Board Chair – and board – managed a problematic situation with a new CEO in a sensitive way.

Trust Your Gut if Something Seems Wrong with Your CEO

As told by a Board Chair somewhere in the US

I was Board Chair of a medium-sized nonprofit in a midwestern city. The organization had been around for decades and was very impactful. We had a lot of support from local corporations, foundations, and big donors. Our staff were – and still are — amazing and have built trusting relationships with the communities we serve.

While I was on the board, our CEO left. She had been there for seven years and got a position at a related but larger organization. There were no hard feelings at all. We had an interim for about eight months while we did a search for a new CEO. This person was from out of town but had a really great resume. We used a search firm to find him. We developed a good on-boarding process including introducing him to our many donors and partners as we defined our CEO role as outward facing.

I became Board Chair just before the new CEO started. I asked him how he wanted to work together, and we started meeting every other week. This was good for me to get to know him and to help him navigate a new city. The previous Board Chair had suggested this cadence.

Something Seemed Off

I went to a number of events which the CEO also attended. Some were events sponsored by our organization – fundraisers and friend raisers. We were trying to introduce him to the community. Some were sponsored by others. Sometimes he seemed to exhibit strange behavior. It was hard to put my finger on at first. But he just said things that did not make sense or interrupted people. I talked to my spouse to see if he noticed anything when he attended some events with me, but he said he had not noticed anything.

But I began to watch more, and it seemed I was seeing the odd behavior more often. The CEO seemed to be getting his work done, and the organization’s programs continued as they had. As I said, the staff were very competent. We even had a couple successful fundraisers.  I did not hear complaints from anyone. But something just did not seem right. I noticed the behavior at events, but I started watching at our meetings every other week and our board meetings. The two of us met one-on-one first thing in the morning, and I did not notice anything during those meetings. But our board meetings were in the evening. I thought maybe he sometimes acted a bit strange at the board meetings. I started wondering if he was uncomfortable in a group setting.

Share Your Concerns with Other Board Members

I called a meeting of our executive committee in Executive Session – so without any staff there. There are five of us on the Executive Committee. I asked if others had noticed any strange behavior and two others said they had as well. One other board member suggested the CEO was drinking! I had not even thought of that. But this board member had been sober for a long time and was much more aware of the signs than I.

We decided to do two things: one was to do a 360 six-month review of the CEO to see what the staff knew and whether it was impacting them. We also decided that the other board member and I meet with the CEO. Since we had not ever seen him actually drink – he always seemed to be drinking water or sparkling water at events – we knew we had to approach him carefully.

At the next board meeting, during the Executive Session, the executive committee and I told the full board about our concerns and what we were going to do. Several other board members had also noticed the behavior and they supported our plan.

We met with the CEO and said that we noticed his behavior sometimes seemed “unexpected.” I think that was the word we used. We wanted to know if he was overworked or uncomfortable meeting so many new people. He said no, he was fine. He said he did not know what we meant, that he was very outgoing, and perhaps being so gregarious made him seem unusual – especially for a midwestern town. We thanked him for meeting with us and asked him to please let us know if there were any issues.

The survey we did was online and went to all staff. We had told the CEO when we hired him that we did 360 reviews, so it was not a surprise that we were doing it. Though admittedly we had planned to wait until he had been there a full year. I think we asked about six questions with ratings 1 to 5 and space for free form answers. And then a space at the bottom with “Anything else you want to add?”

The ratings were just OK. Not as good as I would have expected. But we got several staff people who complained about his behavior. And one who said, “Look in his office drawers, filing cabinet, and closet.” Wow. I did not even know if we could do this, so I called our attorney who said yes. We could absolutely do this. At this point, we brought in the HR manager who had been at the organization for a long time and shared our concerns as well as the survey results with her. We asked her to let us in to the office after hours so we could go through his desk. None of us had fobs for the building.

We went that evening and boy — there were bottles of vodka everywhere. Some large. Some small flasks. Our CEO clearly had a drinking problem. I felt sick to my stomach. Someone with a drinking problem needs help, not discipline. Here I took the lead of the HR staff person and the other board member. We confronted the CEO with what we had found in his office. He did not refute that he had been drinking. He started crying. Sobbing. He said his wife had left him over his drinking and that was why he had moved to a new city.

We told him we wanted to help, and we offered him leave of absence for three months if he would be evaluated and then enroll in an appropriate program to sober up. He could keep his health insurance which would cover part of the program. I did not know about the different types of programs which is why we said to do the evaluation first. The program could have been in-patient or even AA. We just wanted him to get help. He said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do this, that he wanted to think it over. We said okay, but he would have to leave the office right then. If he did not want to do the evaluation and go into a program, we would send him his things and ask him to resign. If he did do the evaluation and go into a program, we would reconvene in three months. He agreed and said he would call us. We took his fob and cut off his access to the organization’s network.

I am sorry to say he did not want to do the evaluation or go into a program. He thanked us for caring and then resigned for “personal reasons.” We were fortunate that the interim was able to come back, and we did the search again. This time we hired someone local. We were also fortunate to catch the problem early on – before it started to impact staff, programs, partnerships, and donors. The CEO moved away. I don’t know what happened to him.

Lessons Learned

I have a few lessons.

  • See if you can find out about problems like this ahead of time – especially when hiring someone from out of town. We had our search firm do the reference checks. In the future, I would make sure they checked people who worked for the candidate as well as former managers or board members from a previous CEO role.
  • I know it is a touchy subject, but I now think it is really good to do some reference checks that are beyond the ones that the candidate gives to you. We did this with the second hire, who was local.
  • Trust your gut. We suspected that something was up, we were just not sure what.
  • Make sure you bring the full board along. I am glad I did not try to handle this alone. The other board members were really helpful.
  • Check with counsel around sensitive HR issues.
  • Plan ahead to do a quick 360 after six months. Don’t wait a year.

Leave a Reply