If the guy reporting to you is a competent idiot

Recently Dr Cameron Sepah, Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF Medical School, wrote a very impressive article on corporate culture called Your Company’s Culture is Who You Hire, Fire, & Promote. I was particular impressed with the guy he called the CA ( abbreviated to keep this politically correct ). In my career this guy has been a bit of an enigma. Because he is so competent, it is difficult to handle him. God forbid if you have this kind of person reporting to you, it can pose quite a challenge. Because you can’t stop him from being an idiot.

Source : Dr Cameron Sepah

I have had the opportunity to observe the CA both from afar and directly because I have had a few competent assholes reporting to me. In fact at one time, I think I had 3 CAs reporting to me and that proved to be quite a challenge in my career. Unfortunately the company I was working for was known to produce Outstanding Nice Guys in general. The CEO himself was an outstanding nice guy and that competent and culture percolated downwards to produce several clones.

“Assholes can hide it in interviews, but for whatever reason, they cannot hide it for a whole week. I don’t know why, but it all comes out within a week.” Dr Cameron Sepah

Says Professor Sepah ‘CAs are high-performers, but exhibit behavioral tendencies that are incongruent with your company values…. I will define it here as someone who lacks empathic behavior to the point that it causes interpersonal issues”.

When I had three competent assholes working under me, for sometime I thought that their only objective to make me look incompetent in the eyes of the senior management. They used a pincer approach with me.

CA 1 had the habit of not informing me of important client meetings ( typically with the Marketing Director a large multinational. ). So if she had three days notice on the meeting I would be informed on the day of the meeting that there is an important meeting today. ( that meant I had to cancel other meetings, because this one just couldn’t be missed ). I figured the game plan after a few times. The idea was to catch me unprepared. If I was unprepared she could shine at the meeting, make the presentation and look good to the client. At the same time, make me look stupid.

CA 2, would leave me out of important meetings. The reason given was that it was a routine meeting that didn’t require a person of my seniority. This was to slowly create a distance between me and my client. Once the client didn’t see me for a few meetings, the client would assume that I was not really interested in his business, and at the next company review, his personal review of me would be that I am useless.

CA 3, followed a queer combination of tactics which belonged to 1 & 2. But fortunately he was the guy who revealed the plot to discredit me, in a rare moment of weakness.

The only way to extricate myself from this situation, was to step up my efforts at regaining visibility with my clients, going to meetings without my competent assholes and re-establishing credibility with the clients. Have a clear vision that your senior management and your client sees your capabilities as being much higher than those of your subordinates. This can’t be overnight. It took me about 6 months of work to establish my clear superiority. But once established I was unshakeable.

You might ask what happened to them? As would have been expected, they left in quick succession one after the other when they found that their ploy had failed. But replacement became a nightmare. It is tough to replace a CA with a Competent Nice Guy or an Outstanding Nice Guy.

So CAs can be a nightmare for their bosses, and the senior management typically thinks very well of them, and dare not sack them because of their competence. But in the long run having these guys around certainly can change your company culture.

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

1 Comment

  1. I must have been really lucky throughout my entire career.

    I don’t seem to have ever had a CA as a junior. Nor did I have incompetent bosses.

    Wonder what it was that I was doing that helped me avoid both.

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