In The Workplace

We have a newly-appointed chief executive officer (CEO), the eldest son of the patriarch of a small, family-owned business with around 80 workers. He has no experience in management and gets one-on-one coaching from his father. Recently, he started giving instructions directly to workers instead of coursing them through their department supervisors or managers. What’s happening? What’s the solution? — Yellow Submarine.

You only have to wait a bit before the CEO realizes his folly. It’s not possible to supervise everyone directly. It’s only a matter of time before he is deluged with workers asking to clarify his instructions and asking him to check their work.

The chain of command is there for a reason. It establishes a clear line of reporting relationships by job function or department, like operations, human resources, accounting, or sales. The objective is to establish accountability and responsibility. Thus, a person in sales must report directly to the sales department head and not to the accounting department head, much less to the CEO.

All department heads, regardless of the size of the business, do this because they have the expertise, accountability and responsibility. There should be no direct reporting relationship between the CEO and non-management people of any department, with very few exceptions like executive assistants.

Clearly, if the CEO opts to give direct instructions to the workers, then he is treading on dangerous ground. Sooner or later, he will be overwhelmed with all the nitty-gritty that could eat up a majority of his working and waking hours.

I can’t believe that this is happening in a family-owned organization. But first, let’s think of all the positives. The CEO may not have the work experience of people on the ground. Maybe, he’s trying to reverse-engineer how the work is done. I hope he is doing this to get to know the background and personality of each worker. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I only wish he were doing it the right way — by engaging each worker in dialogue to answer the following questions: How are you doing in your current job? How can we make your job easier so you are more productive? How long have you been in this organization? What is your career plan?

The difficulty lies in the complexity of the situation. Who among the department supervisors or managers is brave enough to ask the CEO why they’re not being involved? Many would simply shrug their shoulders and pretend there’s nothing wrong with it.

One possible approach is for department supervisors or managers to deal with the matter indirectly. Here is a possible scenario:

When the CEO asks five workers to perform one hour of overtime every day to do quality checks on products to be shipped to Account ABC, bring up the costs, or the potential for discontent among the family men who dislike overtime work. Then bring up the fact that the managers have already error-proofed the process. The result was a 50% reduction in defects, with a goal of improving that to 75% soon.

The key is diplomacy. This may take several discussions. But you will end up relaying the idea that the CEO should not give direct instructions to the workers. You have to help the CEO think things through. He can’t do it without middle management intervention.

He can’t take a trial-and-error approach all the time.

What you do depends on the success or failure of the CEO’s management style. The CEO may be trying to flex his muscles. It might be temporary. Sooner enough, he will default to what’s desirable and effective. If he knows what he’s doing, he’s should be able to deal logically with the situation.

Whatever the CEO does, examine the style and substance of his actions. Even if you appear to have been bypassed, make it your business to find out that the workers are doing what is legal, moral and generally acceptable to all stakeholders. That’s because you can’t wash your hands of the responsibility even if the CEO goes directly to the workers.


Bring Rey Elbo’s leadership program called “Superior Subordinate Supervision” to your line supervisors and managers. Or chat with him via Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or e-mail or via