Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Stephen Bubb

Q: I'm the boss, but I have a very ambitious director who I fear is trying to take over from me. What do I do about him?

A: Intolerable. A traitor in the camp - he'll have to be dealt with.

But first, I suggest that you work out whether he really is plotting against you or whether it's simply a question of him being very talented and ambitious, doing a good job and wanting to get on.


It's very easy as a chief executive to get paranoid. I've noticed that there are often two types of chief executive.

There are those who delight in having really talented and ambitious people around them, people who they encourage and support. Then there are those who want to be the top dog, don't like any competition and surround themselves with sycophants and yes-people.

I know I'd rather be in the former camp than the latter. Why wouldn't you want a team of very talented people who are there to promote the organisation?

The bottom line is that if the organisation prospers through talented people, you get the credit as the boss.

The danger of having only yes-people is that you have a really dumb idea and plunge the organisation into chaos, because no one challenged you.

However, what is not acceptable is a director who is actively trying to do you down. One of my members recently told me they had a well-established director who was actively briefing trustees against them. My advice was clear - sack such people. And quickly.

I am not into the 'commune' style of leadership. It is the chief executive's job to run the organisation and, at the end of the day, it's their word that matters. If other directors don't like it, then they either lump it or leave. You must encourage ideas and challenge people. You must have talented staff who occasionally say: "That's a very brave decision, boss, but are you quite sure?" You want challenge and then, once the decision is made, directors who buckle down and deliver.


Another problem comes when a director challenges the chief executive in a way that encourages his staff or others to do the same. Then the organisation starts to split into factions, which is not on. Tackle your director. Tell him very clearly he must support you or leave. But also see whether his ambitions can be effectively channelled into support for you - if not, you can help him to move into a chief executive role in another body with your support.

As Abraham Lincoln said, "a house divided against itself cannot stand".

- Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo)

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