What to do when you disagree with company direction

Sep 08, 2008

Although it doesn’t happen to everyone who becomes a principal in an architecture, engineering, or planning firm, it happens to many of us. What I am speaking of is the dilemma one faces when you realize that there is a major philosophical difference between the company’s strategic direction and where you think it ought to go. Let’s first discuss the fact that the real strategic direction of the company is NOT necessarily what is written in the business plan. The reality could be something entirely different, than what’s in writing. So, the first thing one necessarily needs to do is determine whether or not their disagreement lies in what’s written in the business plan or what’s actually happening with the business. I care little about what’s written and much more about what’s really going down. Many firms have business plans because their owners feel they are “supposed to” and not because the plan serves any real purpose to guide decision making throughout the enterprise. The second thing I would consider is how serious the disagreement is. There are some things that I would consider much larger problems than others. Anything involving business ethics, for example, that could soil my name forever more, would be a much bigger deal than something that could simply cost me a little money. Then there’s the grey area. When it comes to money, if the strategic direction issue is one that unduly risks the entire company, such as doing a huge project (the largest ever undertaken by the firm) in a foreign country with an ambiguous contract— then it, too, takes on much more importance. Third, I would try to see if I could change the direction of the firm. Just because one has major philosophical differences with the other principals of the firm does not mean you cannot win them over to your point of view. Politick! Sell! Cajole! Build your case for why the direction is wrong and why you are more righteous in your position on the matter. Try hard, stay calm, and be logical. The fourth thing I would consider is what my options are. Can I live with this disagreement over direction or is it so fundamental that I cannot? For example, I would personally have little interest in being an owner in a professional service firm that strove to be the cheapest service provider. It just wouldn’t be fun. So, I would have to decide what my other options were— start a new business, work for a competitor, relocate to a new area, switch careers altogether, etc. Each of those options would need to be fully considered and explored. The fifth step I would take is to talk with the top people and let them know what you are thinking about doing because this matter is so important to you. They need to understand that there is risk at their end if they don’t go along with your desires that they could lose you. You must be sure to be appropriate when you do this— not threatening— and be ready to act should it become apparent that your last-ditch efforts cannot change the situation there. Last, act. Stop talking about what you might do or could do. Do it! Do it or you lose all credibility and respect. And, go forth and prove that you were right. A lot of great companies get started this way. Believe it or not, no matter how critical you think you may be to your firm, the fact is you have probably been disruptive and causing a lot of stress for other people in the company. I think if you follow my steps outlined above, and really work all of them, you’ll be happier, and so will the rest of your company. Be a force for positive change when it comes to things that really need changing. Ignore the trivial stuff. And, if you cannot change the big things that need to change, don’t wait around for the market to prove you were right. That’s too costly! Get out and move on. Originally published 9/8/2008

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