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When Things “Go Bad” for Senior Executives and College and University Presidents

A divided Board, where the President has strong supporters but also some vocal critics.

An intransigent superior, boss or Board Chair.

Performance reviews which are slanted, inaccurate or unfairly negative.

It is the natural tendency of senior executives, particularly college and university presidents, to be optimistic. Their careers have psychologically conditioned them for success, and the very nature of their jobs — leading large institutions through times of change and controversy — presupposes them to approach problems in a hopeful and forward-looking manner. Whenever they feel that, to quote the reprobate Captain Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, “The Whole World’s in a state of Chassis!”, most senior executives hunker down and reflexively draw upon their own, often formidable, problem-solving capacities.

In situations involving the institutions they lead, this may be the right response. But in situations involving their own jobs, as any experienced executive employment attorney will attest, failing to reach out for professional legal counsel (indeed, sometimes “doubling down” on the problem without seeking guidance from an executive compensation lawyer) can push the president or other executive further down the road to an unhappy ending, one which could have been ameliorated or completely avoided with the assistance of counsel.

The truth is that most senior executives have very good “antennae” and are sensitive to various different signs that their jobs are in danger. Nonetheless, they often fail to recognize that they run a serious risk by lumping their own employment problems into an undifferentiated mass with all of the other problems they deal with at work on a daily basis. This is rarely if ever a wise strategy. Executive employment problems almost never correct themselves automatically, nor do they just “go away” by the passage of time.

By contrast, if they are dealt with promptly using the aid of an executive employment attorney, they usually can either be eliminated or meaningfully lessened. At the least, the executive and his or her lawyer can develop a strategy leading to a more successful outcome.

What are some of the unmistakable signs that an executive employment situation in academia, finance or any other employment sector, is “going bad”?

Not all of them are equally obvious, but the uniform response to any of the following should be: to promptly call your knowledgeable executive employment attorney if you have one, and, if you don’t, to find and contact one immediately:

1.     After many years of faithful service and steady promotion, a new superior plainly prefers their own (often younger) person for the executive’s position;

2.     The business or educational institution is not doing well, and the president or other senior executive has been asked to “manage people out”;

3.     There has been a sudden, dramatic or perplexing shift in executive roles;

4.     Someone from the outside has been brought in to “help” the president or other senior executive without any prior warning and without the president’s or executive’s input;

5.     Despite years of admirable performance reviews, the latest review is unexpectedly misleading, or omits or mis-characterizes certain facts in order to arrive at a negative conclusion;

6.     Promises about the executive’s role, compensation or advancement are made and then not honored.

There are other indications which are less simply described, but, again, to which most executives are ordinarily quite sensitive.

The earlier an executive employment or compensation attorney is retained and educated about the particular circumstances involved, the better opportunity that attorney has to evaluate the facts and formulate what needs to be done, either by the executive or by the lawyer on the executive’s behalf. One response will be an action plan of those steps by which the executive’s employment position can be best protected in the event of further actions by the employer, including termination of the executive’s employment. Such a plan aims at creating the best possible employment record for the president or senior executive so as to gain better leverage in negotiations over any exit package. Additionally, sometimes these proactive responses to a threatening situation can actually cause the employer to change course on certain items which disadvantage the executive.

The moral of this story is that the sooner an executive employment attorney is brought into a situation where a good job is “going bad,” the better the likelihood of a favorable outcome for the president or other executive.

In the words of the great American writer Damon Runyan, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong — but that’s the way to bet.”

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.