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Toxic leaders drive out talent. Here’s what to do about it.

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journals on June 22, 2020.

It is said that people quit bosses, not companies. I recently had a conversation with a friend whose personal story reinforced this point.

My friend had worked in a nonprofit organization where the CEO micromanaged nearly all decisions. The CEO’s direct reports needed to check with him on the most mundane of issues. He was known for having large staff meetings where one rarely disagreed with his stated position for fear of being viewed as not being a team player. The body language of the CEO would indicate the receptivity to his direct report’s comments. There was a significant lack of trust within the organization.

If the CEO had a more effective leadership style and engendered trust, the organization could have accomplished so much more.

My friend had a great track record of achieving results in previous positions and when she decided to accept a position at this nonprofit, she thought it was an opportunity to continue to grow. The need to always check with the CEO on decisions that were well within her authority was not what she had anticipated.

She decided to leave this stifling toxic environment, and landed a new job with more responsibility at another company. Before accepting the job offer, she did significant due diligence on the leadership style of the CEO and the culture of the new company.

On her last day, the CEO stopped by to wish my friend well. The CEO gave her some parting advice. He said, “Your direct reports will disappoint you.” Wow! I never heard any leader say this about their direct reports. What a terrible attitude. I asked my friend why he would say such a thing. She said that the CEO wanted everyone to do things his way, and would be annoyed if his employees accomplished their objectives in a way that was not consistent with his own views.

Steve Jobs, the former chairman and CEO of Apple once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Lee Iacocca, former automobile industry executive, once said, “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.” Why don’t all leaders have the same attitude as Jobs and Iacocca, two very successful leaders? One wonders if the board of this organization bothered to learn about the CEO’s leadership behaviors, and if so, why the board didn’t provide feedback to help the CEO improve his leadership style.

One wonders why all CEOs don’t provide feedback to their direct reports to help them improve. This is one of the most important jobs of a board, a CEO and the leaders down through the organization.

Many of these leaders “manage up” very well. It is up to their bosses to see through this and to ensure employees are treated professionally and with respect.

What is the best way to obtain a full picture of the effectiveness of a leader, whether that individual is the CEO or any other leader within the organization? Obtain 360-degree feedback on their leadership behaviors. Done properly in organizations where this process has become a cultural norm, this performance tool provides feedback to help leaders be more effective, regardless of their level within the organization.

Obtain input about direct reports from people reporting to them, from peers and from senior individuals within the organization. This information can be used in the direct report’s performance review. In many cases, it is the best way to identify and communicate to the direct report their strengths and areas for improvement.

At my company, I introduced the 360-degree feedback system while president of our world-wide chemicals business. Not only did I communicate 360-degree feedback to my direct reports, but I subjected myself to the same process, conducted by our company’s CEO.

When I became the CEO of the company, I continued this process, with the chairman of our board obtaining 360-degree input on me from my direct reports and board members. I found it to be one of the most valuable feedback mechanisms to help me improve my performance as a CEO.

Boards, ensure your CEO is an effective leader. CEOs and other leaders within the organization, ensure the leaders below you are effective. If they are not effective, you are apt to lose your high performing employees, perhaps to a competitor. In today’s tough business environment, you can ill afford to lose them.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at

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