A flattering article on an up-and-coming executive appeared in the business pages, followed by copycat stories in other media. When I complimented the boss on cultivating what seemed to be an extraordinary young talent, she looked me straight in the face and shook her head. “A major, major mistake. I never should have promoted him,” the CEO said. “But I had no choice he was the best manager in that position we’ve ever had.”

The litany of complaint that followed sounded like a laundry list of executive hubris. The newly-promoted one “my NPO, I call him,” said the CEO, wryly had spent the first 90 days of his “administration” rearranging every aspect of the office, from where the assistants sat to how they answered the phone. He shifted the responsibilities of the managers under him without regard for company protocol. He became assiduous in seeking media opportunities, and in interviews hyped his achievements beyond recognition. And he’d seemingly forgotten everything that had earned him the promotion in the first place.

“I feel like just getting rid of the guy,” the CEO said, but was constrained by the cost and the disruption, not to mention the possibility of a legal dispute.

The CEO had my sympathy. After all, it can appear somewhat illogical to fire someone right after you’ve promoted them. But the CEO had also made assumptions that indicated she was somewhat to blame for her predicament. The fact is, every NPO, to borrow her term for newly-promoted one, is a potential disaster unless you’re prescient enough to oversee the transition to the elevated status and responsibility. In a phrase, you need to King-proof your company.

Care and feeding of the NPO

Three things can happen when you promote an executive, and two of them are bad. If the NPO doesn’t proceed to adapt calmly and rationally to the new circumstances, then you, the CEO or manager, can expect the NPO to either assume the powers of an absolute monarch or refuse to acquaint himself with the duties of the new position by delegating oversight as well as responsibility.

Dealing with the second of these shouldn’t be difficult for an alert CEO or manager. Delegation can be confused with being totally hands-off and can be properly monitored by requiring regular and thorough reports from the NPO in person. If he or she can’t speak knowledgeably, inspire him to come back and do so forthwith. Memos can be finessed much more early than in-person reports.

The tendency toward monarchy, however, is trickier because it is more endemic to all human power relations, from the family to the political sphere. In business, the NPO who would be king is usually one who has nurtured a certain private mythology which you, the CEO or manager, have unwittingly activated by the promotion. Suddenly having “arrived,” the NPO puts on airs to which he or she feels entitled.

The best method of king-proofing is to present every NPO with a paradox. When you are settled on your candidate for a raise, promotion, or even hiring, you must in a stroke lower their position in the hierarchy while challenging their natural ego to a higher calling. Do this by emphasizing the difficulty of the new job, its responsibilities, and in particular the looming obstacles.

However, since this may go in and out of the NPO’s ears, you have to alter the terrain or appearance of the promotion. Say something on the order of, “I’m sorry to saddle you with this now, but this transition is an opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do.” Explain that you’re going to announce the shift of a line of authority, a departmental responsibility, or a budget allocation away from the NPO’s fiefdom in the very same announcement that accompanies news of the NPO’s ascension.

Spare the rod, spoil the executive

When the NPO objects, you can be quite forthright but disarm him by apologizing. Say that you decided to act now because of the danger that the changes, should they come later on might be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the NPO’s performance. This sort of reminder of the political nature of every company is your segue to engaging the NPO in a discussion of management style. Try to give your remarks to the NPO a “welcome to the club” tone, which will flatter those natural instincts for the exclusive that we all have. However, gradually cite many more negative than positive examples of NPOs in your experience; for each one, ask him point-blank for examples he’s come across and details of how they were or weren’t handled.

Once you’ve splashed this cold water on his royal mug, you should raise your one concern and dangle your new carrot. The concern: The assumption of too much power will distract your NPO from the real focus of the job. The carrot: Finish with a challenge. “If you can prove to me that this” whatever it is you’ve arranged to curtail his powers “can work out under your oversight, I’ll consider restoring it. But I can only give you six months.”

It’s quite possible that the NPO will read this for what it is a transparent ploy to remind him who really sits on the throne. If this should be the case (and you ought to be able to tell), good. Your NPO is paying attention. If, however, you pick up cues that this NPO has missed the point, it’s not too soon to consider the further clipping of this bird’s wings, because obviously they’re not as smart as they, and you, think.

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