Challange the Boss or Stand Down

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May 2011
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HBR.org > May 2011
HBR Case Study: Challenge the Boss or Stand Down?
by W. Earl Sasser
A rising-star executive calculates his response to a hypercritical superior. HBR’s fictionalized case studies present dilemmas faced by leaders in real companies and offer solutions from experts. This one is based on the HBS Case Study “Thomas Green: Power, Office Politics, and a Career in Crisis” (case no. 2095), by W. Earl Sasser and Heather Beckham. It is available at hbr.org.

Thomas Green winced as he reread an e-mail message from his new boss, Frank Davis, marketing director for the travel and hospitality group at D7 Displays. “Tom, this week’s client meetings went well, but they would have gone better if you had been on top of the market data,” it read. “When you’re on your own, I expect you to be better prepared. It’s essential for your new responsibilities in developing market strategies for your region.”

Tom looked up from his paper-strewn desk and glumly surveyed the view from his new 20th-floor office in midtown Atlanta. Just a few months ago he was the company’s fastest-rising star, promoted, he thought, to bring fresh thinking to the firm’s self-service kiosk business. He’d catapulted from account executive to his new position as a senior marketing specialist, bypassing colleagues and collecting a 50% raise. And hardly six weeks later, he was being lectured—again—about how to win a sale. Unless he could get a handle on his new boss, Tom figured he’d be lucky to make it to his one-year anniversary.

A single rap on the door snapped Tom out of his reverie. Frank Davis immediately let himself in.

“Taking a break, Tom?”

“No, Frank,” Tom replied coolly. “I was thinking through my kiosk-services development project. If we can’t get new offerings out there soon, we won’t be able to compete in this business. I know you’re not a fan of the project, but—”

“Did you read my e-mail?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And?”

“And, yes, I will prepare better.”

“Good,” Frank said. “And, Tom, I need you to put your skunk works project on hold. The market-strategy meeting is next week, and I still haven’t seen your plan, which was due yesterday. That is your one and only priority right now. Capisce?”

“Understood,” Tom said wearily.

The Tricky Fast Track

D7 Displays, launched in 1990 as an ATM provider, now dominated the self-service kiosk business. With 1,500 self-check-in stations in 75 airports, the firm had sewn up 60% of the air-carrier market and was making inroads into hotels and car rental agencies. Tom had joined the company just a year before, at age 28, and he immediately set about getting noticed. Within weeks he had secured a contract with a major airline to accelerate kiosk rollout in 20 airports and buy software upgrades across their locations. He’d also worked the back channels to get the ear of his division’s software-development director and push his ideas about new service offerings—an unorthodox move that ruffled some midlevel feathers but got senior management’s attention.

It was clear to Tom that for the kiosk business to compete with...
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