What's your problem?

What's your problem? - FIGHT TO THE DEATH

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: Four months ago, the owner of the company of which I am MD gave staff an 'all-pull-together' speech. The workforce, who are extremely loyal, have put in long hours and make little fuss. So I was horrified to discover that the owner has now ordered a new Jaguar XKR on the company, arguing that it is important to maintain company image. How can I get him to back down without losing face?

A: There are a couple of interesting points here. You call him the 'owner', which makes it sound like he is the sole and outright owner And the fact you 'discovered' that he'd ordered his ostentatious car suggests he treats the business as his private fiefdom. If so, this must make it quite difficult for you, as a salaried MD, to establish your own authority. So I suspect the car affair is not an isolated incident but part of a general pattern.

If this is an accurate analysis, then you might as well look upon the Jaguar issue not as a challenge but more an opportunity to get a whole lot of stuff into the open. I bet this isn't a particularly enticing prospect for you, but you'll have to do it some time, why not now?

Start by being clear on one thing: in any fight to the death between the outright owner of a private company and his salaried MD, there can be only one winner. Forget about justice, common sense, gratitude and what's best for the business. If he wants to have his way, he will. So you must go into this exchange recognising that, at the end of it, you may have to leave. Whatever you do, don't begin pretending to be resolute only to subject yourself later to a series of shaming concessions.

Have a grown-up conversation. Make it clear that, of course, he's entitled to have his Jaguar on the firm but that's not the principle at issue here.

The principle is whether he needs a good MD or not. A good MD must command the respect of his workforce, which the best of men will fail to achieve if undermined by the owner. So why pay a good salary to someone who you then render ineffective?

You are in no doubt: it will benefit his company if he forgets about the XKR. If he ignores this advice, then it's clear to you, without heat or petulance, that he believes he doesn't need you. Good luck. My guess is that you'll be well out of it.


Q: My husband and I run our own company. How can we maintain 'Chinese walls' between work and home?

A: I'm not sure why you want to. Is it that you're dealing with confidential client matters? Is it that dragging the office into the home every evening is getting you both down? Or is it, as I rather suspect, getting you down but not your husband?

What I imagine is this. There you both are, after a long, hard day fretting about unpaid invoices, the faulty fax machine, the unreliable temp, the unseasonally threadbare order book and then you go home. What you long for now is one or more of the following: dinner out, a good film, a phone call to your daughter and a glass or two of Sauvignon blanc. And all he wants to do is bang on about the unpaid invoices, the faulty fax, unreliable temp and the threadbare order-book, while expecting a nice hot supper on the table at the same time.

If this strikes a chord, you've got a pig on your hands. My best advice is that you should invent a quite formal routine - and stick to it. Have a proper, expensive, professional sign made that reads: 'The office is now closed/open' with one of those little sliding windows. Hang it prominently in your hall at home. When you leave in the morning, ostentatiously flick it from 'closed' to 'open'. On return in the evening, even more ostentatiously, flick it from 'open' to 'closed'. And always, always get out of your work clothes the moment you get home. If this doesn't work, change either your husband or your business partner.


One of our senior managers has told me they are intending to undergo cosmetic surgery, and wants to know whether the two-day hospital stay and 14-day recovery time will be considered as sick leave or holiday.

We do not have a company policy established for this kind of situation. What do you think?

A: Only you will know this person's history. But if (and I'm risking feminist wrath here, but it's statistically more likely that she's a woman) she's a conscientious individual with no previous record of dreaming up work-shirking ruses, then you should follow your instinct and consider it sick leave.

She is, after all, undergoing an operation and will certainly need recovery time. It's only the fact that the decision to subject herself to surgery is a voluntary one that raises any element of doubt in your mind. If I were you, I'd try to forget the word 'cosmetic'. It smacks too much of vanity and frivolity - as if someone's demanding an extra week off to top up their suntan.

But, as always, do think through the consequences very carefully. You'll be setting a precedent here - and while you may never receive an equivalent request again, you'd better be clear in your own mind what the company policy now is, just in case. Time off for tattooing, for example? Or nose-piercing?

Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now a director of Guardian Media Group and WPP.

Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP.

Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably no correspondence can be entered into.

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