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I work as a software developer in a medium sized company. The CEO has some technical background and has a habit of walking around the development department and talking to the employees about their work, how everything is going and often tells them what they should do next or differently.

However the CEO is not the head of development. This often leads to situations where someone is working on something that was discussed with his supervisor, when the CEO bursts in and tells him to work on something different now. This leads to frustration for the employees. The CEO often does not discuss the things that he thinks the staff should be working on with the head of development.

In my case the CEO often talks with a coworker, who isn't even in the development department but just happens to be sitting in an office near me, and asks her questions about what I am currently working on and tells her to tell me what my next tasks should be.


I find this absurd and annoying at best and frustrating at worst. I talked to my supervisor about this behavior, but he says that he can't really do much about it. He knows that our CEO has this habit but since he is the CEO there is not really much one can do to stop this.

I think that the hierarchy in a company is there for a reason and the confusion that the CEO produces when defying it is not in his best interests.

I am wondering if this behavior is common for CEO's that have some technical background and have a development department and what damage can this behaviour cause other than the employees being annoyed and frustrated?

Can I or my supervisor do something to change this behavior?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Apr 6 '16 at 23:37

11 Answers 11

236

Can I or my supervisor do something to change this behavior?

The CEO can pretty much do whatever they want, the smaller the company the more arbitrary they can be.

My strategy to mitigate against this sort of issue was pretty simple. If I was given a change of task directly from the CEO, I would email my supervisor outlining it, and stating where it came from so that they're in the loop. Then logging it in whatever tracking system we had, or if there was none, just keeping a paper trail. Then the onus is on the supervisor to talk to the CEO or not in regards to my duties.

If a coworker was giving me tasks from the CEO, I would refer them to my supervisor. Then only start working on it after the supervisor told me to.

If I was the supervisor in question, I would tell the person to come to me first and not to directly order my staff. And I would talk to the CEO and ask him/her to stick with the hierarchy (which might not work but I'd keep beating that drum) because it's important for me to know what my people are doing for many reasons.

Part of the supervisors role is to act as a buffer between his team and the rest of the World including the CEO, if he doesn't want to do anything about it then it's not my problem anymore, I just follow orders and don't allow myself to become frustrated.

At the end of the day I don't care if they have me washing dishes, so long as I'm getting paid my outrageous hourly rate. It's more a personal issue of dealing with the frustration than anything else. Once you let the frustration go, it's not a problem.

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    +1 Clear concise, and outlining a strategy that won't get a person fired. It is important to remember that the CEO holds all the cards and while you can't stop his behavior, you can document it to protect yourself against any action from mid level management. Excellent advice! – Retired Codger Apr 4 '16 at 12:39
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    "At the end of the day I don't care if they have me washing dishes, so long as I'm getting paid my outrageous hourly rate." Very depressing to see talent wasted and enthusiasm drained. It sounds like you could be doing much better quality work. That said, it sounds like you're a freelancer, in which case, good for you. – Django Reinhardt Apr 4 '16 at 12:42
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    those dishes would be spotless, doesn't matter the task, I'd do it properly :-) The salient point is not to let anything frustrate you. Frustration leads to bitterness which in turn leads to all sorts of issues, none of them pleasant or useful. – Kilisi Apr 4 '16 at 13:07
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    @DjangoReinhardt This quote exactly earned my upvote. This when hobby ends and a job begins. If nobody is forced to do anything it's clear and honest. You wanna do stuff your way, make your own business. If my boss wants to pay me good to make me do a shitty job it's my call to take it or not. My job is to inform him about costs and risks, present my best opinion, and respect his decision on how to proceed. Personally for the art value I do side-projects where I have more control over the quality. – luk32 Apr 4 '16 at 14:08
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    "If a coworker was giving me tasks from the CEO, I would refer them to my supervisor. Then only start working on it after the supervisor told me to." This is important too. I have had co-workers who lied about tasks coming from the CEO. – HLGEM Apr 4 '16 at 14:23
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I am wondering if this behavior is common for CEO's that have some technical background and have a development department and

It is somewhat common for business leaders who have a technical background to have a hard time letting go completely of their previous roles. It's like a parent trying to let go of their maturing children. Boundaries get fuzzy, and sometimes they insert themselves into their children's lives where they are not needed (or wanted), frequently causing disruptions and some frustration. It happens, and a savvy technical staff & supervisors learn how to "manage the manager," by giving them only the information they need to run the business, without giving them so much that they can insert themselves into the technical day-to-day.

However, the case you describe is a bit extreme. This guy is not going to be left out of a single technical decision, and I'm sure it's super-frustrating for both the supervisor and the technical staff.

what damage can this behaviour cause other than the employees being annoyed and frustrated?

It deeply undermines the technical supervisors, and makes everyone hesitant to take any initiative since the CEO will be looking over everyone's shoulder, and will probably overrule any decisions that the team and / or middle management makes.

Can I or my supervisor do something to change this behavior?

That depends on how comfortable you and your supervisor are with conflict. Here are some ways you can start:

  • Frequently give him gentle reminders that there is a chain of command, and you have a supervisor. Since he is the CEO, when he says, "do this," everyone (probably) responds "yes, sir." Which is fine. But it doesn't hurt just to reference your supervisor to give a gentle reminder that (although you will do what he wants) you are a direct-report to someone else. When he says, "Tobi O' Bobi, I need you to [do] a [thing] for me. Please do [X], [Y] and [Z] by Thursday," respond, "Ok. I'll work on that. I'll just send an email to [Supervisor] so that she is aware of that decision, and she can adjust her plans.

  • Any time he gives you an out-of-place direction, email a follow-up to both him and your supervisor:

TO: [CEO]
CC: [Supervisor]
Subject: Our Conversation about [thing]

Hi [CEO],

Just wanted to review the things you asked me to do. Earlier today you asked me to work on a [thing], and to complete [X], [Y], and [Z] by Thursday. I will get working on that soon.

[Supervisor]: I included you on this email to loop you in on the conversation.

Thanks,

Tobi O' Bobi

That's about all you can do. However, if your supervisor or IT Directory is comfortable with conflict, they can (should) be doing the following:

  • Talk to the CEO about the disruptions his behavior is causing. Give examples of occasions when his out-of-place directions have interrupted company initiatives. Ask him to go thru the chain of command.

After that, you'll just have to hope for the best. The CEO is the agent that the company owners / stockholders have entrusted with running the company. It's his neck on the line. Maybe he just has a hard time trusting his staff -- definitely a flaw. But at the end of the day, he is the boss.

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    "I will get working on that immediately" ...or at least once you've completed your current task. There's no obvious reason to be a 'yes man', and this response will just cause further damage through enablement – Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 4 '16 at 22:43
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    I used to always assume that when my boss's boss asked me directly to do something, it was urgent and pre-empted whatever I was working on, mainly because of the stature of that manager (a vice president in my case). Eventually, I learned that is not always true. Sometimes, he just wants to get up, stretch his legs, and save an email by talking to me directly when I am 10 feet away. But, I did sometimes have to work with my direct manager to work out priorities and keep him in the loop. – Brandon Apr 5 '16 at 15:12
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    I used "immediately" in passing. "Soon", "eventually", "tomorrow", "next week", are all fine. – MealyPotatoes Apr 5 '16 at 15:52
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    Possibly usefull addition: "Starting friday I will pick up [W] again as discussed." – Dennis Jaheruddin Apr 6 '16 at 13:56
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Can I or my supervisor do something to change this behavior?

Yes, definitely. It is also very important. I'd try to explain the same from a personal experience:

I can very much relate your situation to one of my workplaces. Our CEO (a high school dropout) has built the company from his garage. As he was the one who wrote the complete code for three versions of the product, he had to act both as a CTO and a CEO.

However, he and the rest of the staff also realizes that that was a very dangerous and an inefficient hierarchy to have. However, if he completely shuts himself out from development, then the engineering would take a blow, as they we used to having him take all our review and dev meetings, including the standups.

So, this is what he/we did, and I think this can be applicable to other companies too:

  1. Start building up a hierarchy slowly. Some might argue that startups don't believe in hierarchy. But, trust me, after a point is reached, a neat and defined hierarchy helps. So, he started recruiting directors for the teams like Finance, Customer Support, Marketing and Growth. These are the facets of the company where he is not as involved and bound to, as engineering.
  2. Then comes Engineering. A "Director of Engineering" is hired, to whom the engineering leads would report to. (Note: They were reporting to the CEO directly before). So, we(leads) had a problem. There was a phase where the CEO is slowly moving away from dev. and the director is slowly learning about the architecture.

That was the phase where we had to field a lot of confusion, and sometimes also had completely different instructions from the director and the CEO (which are always resolved by a meeting, though)!

After that brief phase, the Engineering Director take over as a single point of contact for everything engineering, which helped define and restore the company's hierarchy and also helped the CEO concentrate on the administration of the company, rather than acting as a pseudo-CTO in the skin of a CEO.

So, have a company-wide hands-on meeting (if not company-wide, then have a meeting of the leads with the CEO), and explain him the problem and a clear, defined solution if possible. Also, explain him how the solution would help the company and also him, in building the company further.

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    Wouldn't it have been better for him to take on the post of CTO and relinquish the post of CEO to someone more inclined to management, with the CTO as a partner(so he can't be fired by the CEO)? – cst1992 Apr 4 '16 at 13:36
  • @cst1992 Maybe. It depends on what he's interested in. Maybe, he wanted to be a CEO, as the company is his brain child. So, as someone who's taking care of it for ~5 years, it's difficult to let go, or it is more easy to hire a Director of Engg. than a CEO :) – Dawny33 Apr 4 '16 at 13:40
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+100

This is a pretty common situation. You are not the first to be in it. It's also one that need not be frustrating, if you look at it the right way.

I see this more of a problem between CEO and Supervisor. Your CEO is probably making things more difficult for Supervisor, but it need not be a problem for you.

I find this absurd and annoying at best and frustrating at worst.

I suggest that you see it as Not My Problem, and to choose to not be annoyed or frustrated at the situation.

It's CEO's place to decide how he/she wants to run the company. If CEO's actions don't make sense to you, that's OK, because that's quite literally "above your pay grade."

Being asked to change what you're working on is a common part of work life. Today I was working on some SQL to collect statistics, and then my supervisor handed me a branch of code that needed to be reviewed by the end of the day. So I changed what I was working on. Not a problem.

You may think "When I have to change things, it slows down my main project," and that may be, but that's also Not My Problem. If your work is being disrupted by the CEO (or anyone else), it's Supervisor's problem to deal with, not yours.

Get with Supervisor and find out what you should do when CEO comes in saying "You should do X". Then do that, and report back to Supervisor if it happens, and let Supervisor do his/her job.

My biggest concern would be CEO telling someone who is neither you nor Supervisor to tell you what to do. If I got directions from a disinterested third party acting as intermediary, I'd refer that person to Supervisor.

5

I solved this successfully by introducing a SCRUM process, with well-defined sprints and a backlog. Since the CEO stated what the sprint scope was, any remarks during the sprint were noted and put into the backlog.

The critical success factor here is that the CEO agreed that we should have a process, and that it should be Agile. He should be in charge, that's his job, so he should have the means. You can't just take away his ability to control the business. But for a medium size company, many CEO's realize that sprint-level control of the business is exactly the level of detail they want.

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    That's a good idea if the CEO can respect the process. I think in this case, it might be a problem. He already bypasses the chain of order, but maybe the reason is that they feel the model is not working, so he's trying to micromanage. If the CEO thinks they're omnipotent they will always micromanage because of seeing own ideas as superior. One has to understand that employees are not extensions of the hands and fingers of a boss, and they have some authority over their own solutions and tasks. That's not an easy thing to do. – luk32 Apr 4 '16 at 14:20
  • It would actually work quite well with scrum. If the CEO were to ask me (which I don't think will happen), I'd add a new task, assign it to me, add an estimate, give it highest priority, move it into the current sprint, mail the scrum master and the project manager so that it's not too much of a surprise to them, and leave the rest to them :-) If they throw it out of the sprint, that's fine with me again. You will say "that's not scrum", I'll say "this is scrum with addition of an irrational CEO". – gnasher729 Jul 27 '16 at 13:29
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When the CEO gives you a directive that contradicts what your supervisor wants, document it and give it to your supervisor. Use the same system for tracking requirements, changes, etc. Make changes to delivery dates if necessary. Everyone needs to know how these changes affect the project. Having this documentation is very important. The CEO probably doesn't remember half of the stuff he's telling everyone to do in the "drive by" meetings.

If you think there are going to be negative consequences using the CEO's input, privately send those concerns to your supervisor. You're just providing information. He can decide to over-ride it, discuss with the CEO, etc.

At some point, someone should notice all of these changes and decide if they are hindering the project or not. Your supervisor will have to decide if the CEO's technical advice is bad enough to confront him over. It just looks like your manager isn't going to question the CEO, so under this context, I don't see how any advice is going to fix this situation unless you can motivate your boss and toughen him up enough to take on his boss.

3

When this happens, ask your CEO to review any recommendations with your boss, and cite the need for everybody to be on the same page as the reason.

Or, each time it happens, say that you'll be glad to perform XYZ after the three of you have sat together in a meeting to prioritize your work again. Schedule the meeting ASAP. Do this EACH time. This presses the accountability back between the bosses.

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    That could be risky, it'd be better to just say "Yes sir" and report the change to the supervisor before beginning work on it. They'll then decide to either let you do it or take it off your hands. – cst1992 Apr 4 '16 at 13:33
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    @cst1992 It's just a matter of saying, politely, "I totally understand your request but I don't want to put my supervisor in porte-a-faux, so I'd really prefer that you discuss it with him before asking me". Is it risky? Well, if this is considered risky in your company, well, move, then. – Jivan Apr 6 '16 at 9:57
  • Plus, it can be seen as a way of indirectly telling the CEO "hey, I have 100% total faith in your recruiting abilities, so I guess you put the best person possible as a supervisor. I'm going to trust this important decision and blindly follow your word on it, so I'm going to ask him directly before starting what you're asking me to do". – Jivan Apr 6 '16 at 10:01
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I would send an e-mail along the lines of "Dear Mr./Ms. CEO: Attached is a copy of our company's org chart. Notice how between your name and my name, there are other names. Sincerely, etc".

Most likely he'll like the cut of your jib and respond with "well, I guess the only answer then is to move you up a few levels so that you report directly to me. Congratulations."

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    Either that, or "you're fired". Either way, it's a win. – Max Vernon Apr 6 '16 at 21:30
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Your CEO is looking the wrong way. He/She should be outwardly focused, looking for the next big thing for your company or promoting your current offering. It is poor management for him to be dictating work. It isn't so bad that he wanders and keeps in touch with what you and your co-workers are doing, but a good CEO will take that and see how it can be leveraged into the next thing.

If he does have concerns he should as noted run them down through the management chain he has created to keep things running smooth.

You might want to consider a job change, because with behavior like this, your company isn't going to make it long. He is meddling in the day to day mundaneness and is going to miss the next big thing that your company must find to keep moving forward.

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    I think you're assuming a certain organizational structure that not every business has. In small companies - especially ones still run by the founder(s) - the CEO often can do as he pleases. If he's more operations oriented, he can hire business developers to seek the "next big thing". – GreenMatt Apr 5 '16 at 18:48
  • They can, but the OP specifically mentioned a management structure, and it is often the CEO that carries the 'vision' and that is his/her job, not to be micromanaging the day to day operations. Good CEO will hire people they trust to carry out their vision so they can continue on honing and directing that vision. – Bill Leeper Apr 5 '16 at 19:23
  • "The world is wrong, look for a new job" is not constructive advice. – user42272 Apr 6 '16 at 21:43
  • I recommended looking elsewhere because this company is not going to go places if their senior leadership is too concerned about the mundane day to day business. It shows they are focusing on the wrong things and will miss out on opportunities to grow their business. This indicates that the company is not on a good track. Successful companies have leadership that are looking ahead and looking at what their customers want and desire the most, not wether feature x is coded a certain way. That's what their team leaders and tech leads are for. – Bill Leeper Apr 6 '16 at 22:40
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You may not be comfortable with this, but to be honest I would give this feedback directly to the CEO. FWIW, I work in software development and am now one of the lead s/w developers on a project with several hundred developers. I have found throughout my career that often the best course of action is to have direct and honest conversations with the people above you when you have the chance. Specifically when working in a smaller shop we had a CTO that would sometimes come talk to us and he always open to our feedback.

Looking at things in another way, the CEO is inserting himself into the development environment. He is dictating what should be done because he is used to talking that way. But by interacting with you, he is also leaving the door open for information to flow the other way. It may seem unbelievable, but he is also a human and he is also someone that is trying to make this company a success.

So, if this is a becoming a repeating pattern then I would find some time to drop by his office and chat with him in private. I'd say I appreciate development advice he's dispensed (if he has) and his personal interest in the team. And then I'd tell him that when he bypasses the project management process it is making it impossible for you to finish your assigned work.

YMMV, and if your CEO has a reputation for randomly firing people, or if your boss is the type to interpret this as going over his head, you may want to just suck it up. But honestly in my experience they'll both respect you more for the conversation.

  • For someone who is 'just' a developer(not even a senior developer) it'd be a bit of a long shot to be chatting directly with the CEO. It'll always be beneficial if a senior person of the technical department does the conversation or is atleast aware and approving of it. – cst1992 Apr 6 '16 at 10:13
  • It could also be that the CTO is still a technical guy, and you are the lead of a team of a hundred developers. I'd be surprised if the top level guys ignored your feedback. – cst1992 Apr 6 '16 at 10:15
  • This is a good point - if the CEO deems it appropriate to talk directly to a developer, he should be prepared to have said developer talk to him in return. But rather than focusing on "making it impossible to finish assigned work", I'd lean more in the direction of this comment, i.e., the CEO's interventions are undermining my supervisor's ability to fulfill his own responsibilities. – Dan Henderson Apr 6 '16 at 17:50
0

There are several answers addressing the need for proper hierarchy to keep things managable, and that it is good for several reasons to keep your supervisor in the loop.

Though this is true, the supervisor is likely to suffer even more from this than employees are. The reason why I expect employees to be frustrated, is not because their orders come from a different person, but because they disrupt the comfortable and efficient 'workflow'.

There are a few ways to deal with this:

  1. When receiving a request, suggest that you pick it up in a next cycle
  2. When it is urgent, confirm that it is ok that your other tasks will be delayed/cancelled for now. (If you say this in general, you are just bothering him, but if you can be specific about the impact, you enable him to make a decision)
  3. Unless the request has to be picked up in 15 mins, directly contact your supervisor to let him know what is happening, and how you plan to deal with the new priorities.

As mentioned before, having a fixed cycle in place could help a lot with this, but otherwise nothing is stopping you to try to follow a hidden cycle for yourself (daily, weekly,...).

protected by Jane S Apr 6 '16 at 23:37

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