How do I deal with conflict with my CEO?

Q: I am fighting with my CEO. As founder of the company I am frustrated because he is not getting strategic deals done and he accuses me of not making adequate progress in product development.

Th Mchang

Milton Chang

Q: I am fighting with my CEO. As founder of the company I am frustrated because he is not getting strategic deals done and he accuses me of not making adequate progress in product development. How do I deal with this conflict?

Your situation is classic. When it comes to management and people issues, one can usually blame the problem on a lack of communication. The reality is that making deals and solving technical problem both have many factors beyond anyone’s control. You need teamwork more than you need finger pointing. One thing is for sure, there can be no efficiency when there is no harmony; it is not uncommon to see a company destroyed due to internal strife. So it is critical that you two “kiss and make up” to get on the same page or at least “bury the hatchet” to work as a team.

Taking your account at face value that there is no other deeply rooted issue, my advice is to start communicating. A simple suggestion is to meet regularly because that would avoid the impression that “he is descending on me every time there is a problem.” I suggest that you meet in a neutral territory, so that people don’t have to act tough playing their role sitting behind their desk. Talking over a meal is always a good idea because people tend to be more relaxed. Instead of buckling down to business immediately, discussions can be more personal to get to know each other and discover common ground to establish a personal rapport. If nothing else, people are more likely to talk with civility in a public place.

This might be a good time to talk about conflict resolution, or how to bring your point across effectively in a negotiation. First and foremost, you should go into the meeting with an open mind, not insisting on “my way,” but rather with the objective of listening to come up with the “right way.” A powerful concept is to take the position that “I don’t understand” instead of “I don’t agree.” You can’t control the other side, but at least this attitude on your part increases the chance that the other side will respond in kind. I found arguing to make a point usually gets you nowhere, because everyone focuses on “defend and attack,” trying to make a counterargument to what was said instead of thinking about the bigger picture. Getting angry is even worse because it signals, “this is my last resort; I have nothing more to say.” That, of course is conceding defeat. You are also more likely to relent after a blowup, in part because of remorse that you have lost your “cool.”

I have found it effective to move the discussion to a “higher platform,” exchanging views on the big-picture principles instead of opinions. Once the principles are settled, you can shift the discussion to a vision of what could happen under various scenarios to help the other party come to the same conclusion as yours. Working through difficult situations in business and in relationships is a challenge, but they present a learning opportunity for you to grow and to become a more rounded entrepreneur.

Q: What have you learned after giving advice for such a long time?

Writing this column increases my depth of understanding on a wide range to issues because I have to think carefully about each question to give meaningful answers. The insights I have gained enable me to be more spontaneous and more effective when interacting with the management of the companies I work with. I hope that what I write is helpful to the community; my only worry is that I may come across as being arrogant or as if I am a know-it-all.

I have found that people are often looking for confirmation more than for advice, even though they say they are seeking advice. So I see this as “doing my thing” and have no concern about whether people will actually take my advice. I have also learned not to take sides because I know I am only getting a lopsided view and sometimes people may even slant how they tell the story to sway me toward their side. What really gives me pleasure is when I get an occasional letter, years later, telling me how my advice has made a difference.

Th Mchang
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MILTON CHANG is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in photonics applications. He was CEO/president of Newport and New Focus, and currently sits on the boards of Precision Photonics and OpVista. He holds a B.S. degree from the U. of Illinois and a Ph.D. from Caltech. He is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA, a former president of LEOS and LIA, recipient of Distinguished Alumni Awards from both universities, serves on the board of trustees of Caltech, and is a member of the Committee of 100. Visit www.incubic.com for other articles he has written.

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