How do you deal with an incompetent CEO?

You leave. Quietly, with notice, and with respect.

Start-ups attract driven, independent thinkers. And with that, often come critical thoughts. Including constant critiques of the CEO.

In a Fortune 500 company, you can think the CEO is incompetent, and maybe it’s even OK if you keep that mostly to yourself. You can probably gripe at lunch, and even quietly mock the CEO at happy hours outside the office. It may be a bit disrespectful, and maybe impact any promotion path … but you’ll likely never even meet her/him.

But in a startup, expressing thoughts about the competence of the CEO is toxic. It’s just too small, and everyone is interconnected even up to employee 100 or so. And everyone’s opinion matters, at least a little, in a startup for quite a while. So long as there are only 1 or 2 people in each key role — from office-manager to sales — everyone really is the boss of something. And every boss’ opinion is listened to. For better or worse.

So when you’ve come to the decision (which may be right or wrong) that the CEO is incompetent, be careful not to pass external judgment. There’s no upside in it for you or anyone else. The investors aren’t going to fire the CEO because you think he’s incompetent. It’s not going to create change. It’s just going to create toxic drama.

Do what’s best for your career, and the company. Let it go. Find another place, give notice, thank everyone, smile. And move on.

And the hardest of all may be giving 2–4 weeks notice. And putting together a transition memo. And even training your replacement. That can be hard to do when you think the CEO is incompetent. But do it anyway, with a smile. Or at least, without a frown. Leave the company in a better place than you left it. That’s your best legacy.

Because the thing is, you may be wrong. That start-up may become successful. That CEO may be flawed, but not incompetent. It’s hard to see the full picture.

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Published on March 30, 2018

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