The Ghost in the Boardroom

By Manfred Kets de Vries

The old president’s son is viewed as lazy and incompetent. The new president feels like a usurper, and his executive committee is in chaos. How can this French company exorcise its demons?

Didier Anzieu, a psychoanalyst and management consultant, was wrestling with a knotty question: What recommendations should he give to Bernard Lambert, president of the Dunor Corp.? Lambert had recently asked Anzieu to visit the company and advise him about two problems: how to stop a war going on in the executive committee, and how to let go of a family executive who had been promised a permanent position in the company.

Dunor Corp.* is a medium-sized firm in the light metal industry, with its head office and factory in Douai, France. It was started 45 years ago by Albert Peltier, a self-made man and workaholic who was hard on himself and others. His temper was notorious. He ran the company with an iron hand and was both loved and hated by his employees.

Albert was not able to move with the times. He overlooked many financial and manufacturing opportunities, preferring to stick to comfortable routines. His leadership eventually led to financial difficulties and aroused the board’s concern. The board’s loss of confidence in Albert had a deep emotional impact on him and may have contributed to his subsequent illness. He decided it was time for his younger son, Jean, to succeed him. Albert’s older son, Michel, had disappointed him by refusing, years earlier, to go into the family firm. Albert had persuaded Jean to join the company several years before, in spite of Jean’s reluctance to break off the career he had just begun at a credit institution. Albert said Jean would be better equipped than he to introduce modern management practices. Since technical problems were not Jean’s forte, Albert hired Xavier Trudeau to handle manufacturing.

Albert lived in a mansion owned by the company. He had been allowed to continue using the house, located next to the factory, after his retirement. A small gate at the end of the garden led directly to the factory grounds, making it possible to enter the factory without using the main entrance. This was the entrance Jean used when he moved into the house with his father after Albert chose him as successor.

Albert seemed to have pinned all his hopes on Jean. He said that when he first became ill and was forced to stay in bed for several months, Jean had successfully run the factory with his help. Others in the corporation, however, spoke differently about Jean’s abilities. They felt Albert had crushed his son. In spite of claims of non-interference, it seemed that Albert was still kept closely informed of what was going on.

Things did not turn out as he had planned. After Albert’s retirement, the board of directors asserted itself, appointing the sales director, Bernard Lambert, president instead of Jean. The company was then officially run by an executive committee consisting of four people: Bernard Lambert, Jean Peltier, Robert Coffin (the chief foreman), and Xavier Trudeau (head of manufacturing).

Lambert, 45, had a degree from a commercial college. His previous position was sales director in Paris, where he was near most of the company’s biggest clients. The board of directors, by the time it chose Lambert as president, included a number of members of his own family, which held a majority equity position in the company. After he became president, Lambert remained in charge of sales but moved to Douai.

Robert Coffin, 60, had become a de facto member of the executive committee because of his knowledge of the company. He was one of the most senior people in the factory, with 40 years of expertise. Albert had recognized his abilities, promoted him, and eventually made him his right-hand man.

Xavier Trudeau, 48, had received his training at a technical institute and was now director of manufacturing. He had developed the manufacturing side of the business during the company’s expansion, overseeing a reorganization of the factory. Now Trudeau worked mainly in research, leaving the day-to-day management of manufacturing to Robert Coffin. Trudeau was very concerned about self-improvement. He had taken a course on how to direct meetings, which had led Lambert to suggest that he chair the executive committee.

Jean, 32, had a law degree and was now director of personnel. The board, in choosing Lambert over Jean as president, cited his father’s mistakes in managing the firm and Jean’s own mediocrity as the reasons for their choice. Furthermore, the majority of the board expected Lambert to make drastic financial changes to improve profitability. Lambert and the board promised a disappointed Albert that his son would always have a management position in the company. Jean continued to live with his father next door even after he married and had children.

From Anzieu’s conversations with Lambert, it became clear that Lambert thought the executive meetings were too long and not effective. A considerable amount of time was taken up by arguments between Jean, Robert Coffin, and Xavier Trudeau. Because they were so unproductive, the meetings were held further and further apart, and eventually Lambert had been forced to stop them altogether. He now made decisions by himself, informing the others afterward. Lambert met individually with the three managers, and had a good relationship with them; it was the relationships among them that did not work.

Lambert said he had been very satisfied with his life in Paris. He had not had many responsibilities, and he had been very successful in sales. He had not lobbied for the position of president. Rather, it had been given to him by the board to stabilize the company. He accepted because he had a sizable financial stake in the company. But now he felt guilty toward Jean. Because of these feelings, he had given Jean as much independence as possible. It seemed, however, that Jean could function effectively only under strict control, such as his father had imposed.

Lambert told Anzieu he felt vaguely uncomfortable with the people in the company. He saw himself as a newcomer, a Parisian who did not really understand the northerners and who was a stranger to the factory. He never ventured onto the shop floor. He also told Anzieu that he felt incapable of asserting himself as Albert had done. He wondered if the other employees would ever be able to forget that he was a usurper. At times he even wondered if the others would unite against him.

Before Lambert banned the executive meetings, the team—except for Jean, who was always excluded—had held lengthy meetings about how to reorganize the company and improve profits. But the three men could not communicate. Coffin and Trudeau were both very assertive and flew off the handle readily. Arguments would go on all day, although in the end everyone usually made up. Despite their disagreement, the managers seemed to respect one another’s ways of working.

This respect did not seem to extend to Jean. His reputation was one of laziness and incompetence. Others blamed him for failing to resolve the problems in his domain—recruitment, performance appraisal, salary administration. His procrastination and incompetence caused problems and annoyance in other departments. Coffin and Trudeau frequently had violent confrontations with Jean, which only made him worse. Now Coffin and Trudeau had joined forces to get at Jean or bypass him altogether. Jean was aware of this and tried to get back at them. The warring parties continually put obstacles in each other’s way to show the other up. The atmosphere had become so hostile that Trudeau and Jean now communicated only by memo, even though their offices were next to each other. Given the increasing tension, Coffin and Trudeau had convinced Lambert that Jean should be dismissed for the company’s good.

Lambert told Anzieu that he had tried to help Jean organize his work, and to act as peacemaker. Unfortunately, he witnessed in Jean the same negligence, forgetfulness, and procrastination that the others complained about, the only difference being that his relationship with Jean remained polite.

Lambert now faced a difficult moral dilemma that bothered him greatly, and he could not see a way out of it. He felt torn between his promise to protect the old president’s son, and his duty to make the company succeed and the management team work well together. He was concerned about Jean’s intellectual capacity. He asked Anzieu if he could give Jean some kind of psychological examination that would prove him incompetent. Lambert thought this would solve the problem once and for all. He admitted, however, that it was unlikely that Jean would willingly submit to such an examination, and he felt he had no right to force him to do so.

In reflecting on their conversation, Anzieu wondered whether this strange request for a consultation was really a way to blame one individual’s psychopathology for what was really a group problem. He wondered whether Jean had been put in the role of scapegoat in order to relieve the tensions of the group. Most of all, he wondered what he was going to tell Lambert.

*Dunor is an actual company. Real names are used throughout this case except for the consultant, Didier Anzieu.

What Anzieu did for Dunor Corp.

The major issue that seems to preoccupy the members of the Dunor executive group is succession—or to be more precise, failed succession. To them, the succession question is still unresolved.

Unconsciously, and maybe even consciously, each of the key players continues to think of Albert as the true leader, the only one who has really proved himself in the company. Albert still seems to be watching over everything from next door. At any moment, they expect to hear his booming voice.

Not only is the “ghost” of Albert still haunting the corridors, but each of the four members of the executive committee considers himself Albert’s heir and rightful successor. These men are now fighting over the spoils of the company. No wonder the executive committee does not work!

The purported reasons for the existence of this executive committee are laudable: information-sharing and power-sharing. If the committee meets regularly, the executives can inform each other and make decisions jointly (so that everyone is committed to shared goals). Committee meetings theoretically also create a sense of team spirit and a feeling of belonging. Unfortunately, the members of the executive committee are unable to deal with real management problems because they are preoccupied with the “hidden agenda”—the question of who is going to be the true successor.

As the situation stands, Lambert does not dare exercise his power. Trudeau, Coffin, and Jean each attempt to show, in their own way, that Lambert has no authority over them. Even worse, they unconsciously try to destroy through subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) sabotage, the usurper’s capacity to rule.

Albert’s autocratic way of running the firm created a certain amount of resentment, as did his abrasiveness. But there was no doubt that only one person could be in charge. When Lambert was selected as the new leader, the others—wanting to avoid a repetition of his previous regime—banded together to restrain his power. Under the pretext of obtaining a more democratic form of leadership, they instigated anarchy. Yet all the anarchists could feel both Albert’s condemning presence and his absolute desire that Jean should succeed him. The others must have sensed Jean’s desire to take what belonged to him.

After having got rid of one tyrant (or at least having relegated him to ghostly status), they find the possibility of another one hard to take. The only apparent solution is to force Jean to leave by making his life impossible.

Moreover, by tyrannizing Jean, the other managers can take their revenge for Albert’s tyranny and for the tyranny that they would expect from Jean. For years, Albert ruled over Lambert, Trudeau, and Coffin with an iron hand. Now he even wants to impose his son, an unobtrusive young man, on them? Unconsciously, they will make the son pay for all the suffering the father has caused them. And what better way to make Albert suffer than to wound his fatherly pride?

Other factors also need to be taken into consideration. After having been with the company for such a long time, Coffin is upset at being suddenly subordinated to a newcomer, a Parisian. Trudeau is resentful too. He was hired to support Jean, the heir-apparent. In his eyes, then, he is more capable than Lambert. He should have been chosen as president (or at least been the de facto president under Jean).

Thus we can see that the company is suffering from both a leadership and a psychological breakdown. The players prefer to let the boat sink with the whole crew aboard than to let a rescuer take over; they choose mass suicide over Albert’s symbolic resurrection.

The confusing thing is that on the surface all the executives show good intentions. For example, they often work late into the evening. Their shared fantasy of displaced parricide, however, steers them away from rational action. Instead they collude among themselves, playing destructive games. They see themselves as acting very rationally and accuse the others of irrationality, failing to recognize their own responsibility in the matter.

The question now is what to do about this mess. As a consultant, how can Anzieu bring the hidden agendas out in the open? What is the wisest path?

Anzieu decided he had no choice but to begin by working with the members of the executive team on a more realistic way of functioning. Anzieu helped Lambert realize that he should begin to take charge during the executive committee meetings, that he needed to assert his authority. His subordinates were running wild because he had failed to define the rules of the game. Anzieu also explained to him that the team’s difficulties with Jean did not stem from a lack of intellectual ability on Jean’s part —after all, he had been able to earn a law degree — but had a more psychological origin. Lambert had to realize that he had been treating Jean like the boss’s son. He had not acted as a president should toward a subordinate. These discussions helped Lambert recognize that he was the new boss.

Anzieu decided that both Coffin and Trudeau needed a short lesson in the psychodynamics of organizations. They had to understand more about Jean’s background: how he had been brought up, which of his ambitions had been encouraged, and the disappointments he had suffered. They also had to be shown how their own attitudes made the situation worse—they had engaged in self-fulfilling prophecies, setting traps for Jean.

Trudeau had difficulty with these explanations. To defuse his hostility toward Jean, Anzieu asked him to list all the mistakes Jean had made. The consultant showed the list to Jean and asked him to react. Anzieu then gave Jean’s replies to Trudeau, leaving him to draw his own conclusions. He had to discover that the “surface” issues of these conflicts with Jean were trivial compared to the deeper emotional issues, which had blown everything out of proportion. Trudeau had to realize that the conflicts could easily have been resolved through reason and give-and-take. Moreover, he had to accept the fact that if the differences persisted, the president was going to take on the role of arbitrator.

Coffin, on the other hand, accepted Anzieu’s interpretations immediately. He had known Jean since birth and had seen him grow up. He had no difficulty understanding him and seeing what role unconscious fantasies played in his actions. Without telling Anzieu, he took the first two steps that would help solve the crisis.

One evening, before dinner, Coffin went to see Jean and acted in a fatherly manner toward him. This, rather than his previous aggression, was a more natural way of behaving for an old factory worker who had introduced the boss’s youngest son to factory life. Coffin’s change in behavior eventually helped sort out the differences that were making relations between personnel and manufacturing impossible.

Then, after dinner, Coffin went to see Albert. He had not dared to speak to him for six months, fearing that he would have to tell him that his son was a good-for-nothing. He had also been afraid that the old man would reprimand him in his usual forceful manner, reproaching him for entering into a conspiracy against his son. Coffin now went to Albert under the pretext of needing a solution to a problem with the municipal brass band (which they took turns directing). Delighted to be together again, the two had a relaxed and general conversation about the problems at the factory. Albert reaffirmed his wish not to interfere, in order to avoid embarrassing his successor. Coffin made him understand that if his son persisted in his passive-aggressive behavior, this would inevitably lead to his dismissal.

Released from his bondage of authority by Albert himself, Coffin was finally convinced that the only real boss would henceforth be Lambert. And Albert, prepared beforehand because of his meeting with Anzieu, understood that too. He also realized that rather than listening complacently to Jean’s long-winded accounts of the injustices he was suffering, he had better help his son face reality—just as he himself had done when he was forced to resign in Lambert’s favor.

Anzieu’s most decisive talk was with Jean. The meeting was more spontaneous than the consultant had imagined. Anzieu found that Jean had believed his father’s promise. He had therefore felt that the compromise worked out between his father and the board was a betrayal. Jean was biding his time, waiting for the day when his true rights would be recognized, and the usurpers, incapable of directing the firm, would finally call on him. Jean continued to believe that only a direct descendant of Albert had the ability to manage the firm. When he was not granted the position of president, he decided angrily not to act properly as personnel director, neglecting his job while wallowing in self-pity and offended dignity. Through a kind of unconscious sabotage, Jean was showing that without him at its head, the factory would go downhill. What he did not realize was that by behaving in this way, he was contributing to his own downfall.

Having made Jean clarify for himself the reasons for his behavior (his hanging on to a shattered hope, his bitterness toward the colleagues he felt should have been his subordinates, his unconscious desire to destroy the factory that had been taken from him) Anzieu then described how the others saw his behavior. To them it proved not only his inability to be president but also his inability to be personnel director. Jean defended himself each step of the way; he did not like being confronted with the truth. He recognized, however, that Anzieu was making valid points. From the following day onward, he began to work in the true sense of the word. He made a list of prioritized tasks to be done and submitted it to Lambert for discussion.

Given this progress, the executive committee meetings could begin again. Lambert’s real assumption of the presidency, coupled with the change in Coffin’s and Jean’s attitudes, isolated Trudeau. Eventually, he had no choice but to acknowledge that he had been wrong and to stop trying to play the boss. He became once again more willing to help.

The executive committee was able to function effectively for 18 months. During that time, the necessary management decisions were taken to put the company back on course. And then? If you have been viewing things from Anzieu’s perspective, you may not be surprised at what happened next.

Given his personality, Lambert was not able to impose his authority and define the new rules of the game. And because the authority of the Old Man continued in the minds of his former subordinates—both because they craved his strong leadership and because Albert wanted (unconsciously) to continue as boss—their transference reactions toward Albert reinforced Lambert’s uncertainty and timidity. He managed to muddle through for some time, but only because of Anzieu’s intervention. Once the group problem was solved, Lambert was increasingly troubled by personal doubts and dilemmas. After 18 months of struggling, he had learned his lesson and handed in his resignation. The group decided Trudeau and Coffin would run the business for the time being. Jean stayed on, and Albert tried to stay away.

 

Manfred Kets de Vries is clinical professor of management and leadership at the European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainebleau, France. A psychoanalyst, he is the author of 12 books, including “Life and Death in the Executive Fast Lane.” Reprinted by permission from Family Business: Human Dilemmas in the Family Firm, International Thomson Business Press, Boston (800-842-3636). �(c)1996 Manfred Kets de Vries.

 

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Spring 1997

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