Clashing Top Managers
The caller ID on Matthew Smith’s phone read “Kid Spectrum Inc.” It was someone from
the Orlando office, probably administrative director Ellen London. She had been in daily contact
with Matthew since he purchased the company, a provider of in-home services for autistic
children, eight months ago. He appreciated Ellen’s eagerness to help him build the business,
even if she was sometimes high-maintenance. Kid Spectrum’s previous owner, Arthur
Hammond, had told Matthew that Ellen, with nearly two decades of experience in health
services, would be one of his biggest assets.
“Matthew, it’s Ellen. I don’t want to bother you again, but we have a situation down
here.” Matthew sat back in this chair and readied himself. The “situation” could be anything
from the copier running out of ink to the building catching on fire. “I’m calling about Ronnie”
she said. Ronnie Ericson was the director of clinical operations in Orlando, a position Matthew
had created soon after taking the reins at Kid Spectrum. Ronnie, whose son has Asbergers, had
been working with special needs children his entire career and had been with the company for a
decade. The other 40 clinicians on staff regularly turned to him for advice. So, it seemed like a
no-brainer to promote him to a formal managerial role.
“He’s not up to the job” Ellen said. Matthew replied, “That’s a strong statement, Ellen.”
“I know, but it’s true. He’s still resisting the new protocols for time sheets. It’s been eight
months and he has yet to complete them on time. You know the impact that has on insurer
reimbursement. And, he’s hardly ever here in the office.” Matthew responded, “He’s supposed
to be in the field 50% of the time. He still has clients.” Ellen answered, “It’s more like 95%. I
haven’t seen him since Thursday and you know I’m always around.” Matthew sensed that Ellen
was exaggerating but he couldn’t be sure. Managing the Florida-based from Chicago was
proving difficult. He had bought Kid Spectrum through search find; a small group of Illinoisbased investors had given him money to find an undervalued company and make it more
profitable. Their only hesitation about this first venture was Matthew’s plan to run it from a
distance. In fact, one investor had suggested he move to Florida for a while. But Matthew was
still meeting regularly with the investor group about other potential opportunities. And his wife
had no interest in relocating; with two kids under five, she wanted to be near her family.
“He doesn’t get that he’s a manager now” Ellen said. “Not only does he fail to comply
with your new systems, but he doesn’t seem to care if his clinicians do. I mean, he barely blinks
when they call in sick. Right after Memorial Day, we had 14 people out and he didn’t do a thing.
We spent the entire day scrambling to find subs.” Matthew responded, worried that his
inexperience was showing, “Well that’s certainly not optimal.” Before forming the search fund,
he had spent four years at a venture capital firm and the three years as president of one of its
portfolio companies—a medical device maker. Until Kid Spectrum, that had been his only
operational role. “Ellen, I really need to find out more before passing judgment on Ronnie. I
know that he is more laid back than you, but….” Matthew regretted his words immediately.
Ellen was sensitive about the fact that people thought she was uptight.
“Have you talked to him about any of this?” he asked quickly. “I mention the time sheets
every time he calls in and he promises to get to them. But then nothing.” Matthew responded,
“I’ll be down next week for the clinical team meeting and I’ll check in with Ronnie then. Like I
said, I really need more information.” Ellen answered. “Well, you’re not going to get it in a day
trip. Besides, he’ll tell you everything is alright, that the clinical team needs more time to get
used to all the new systems. But from my perspective, it’s not time that’s needed. It’s effort.
Ronnie makes things really difficult for the office staff.” Matthew responded, “I’ll see if I can
come down for longer, maybe a week or two.” He wasn’t sure how his wife would react, but he
knew that this was important. He tried to say goodbye, but Ellen kept talking. “When you took
over Kid Spectrum, you wanted to run it more efficiently, more profitably. I remember you
saying that in the main conference room when we first met you and again in your email.” She
sure has a keen memory, Matthew thought. “So, I’m just going to help you make good on your
promise.” she said.
The team meeting had run long so most people had rushed off to their next appointments.
Matthew, who used the conference room as his office while he was visiting, opened his laptop to
check email bit then noticed that a senior clinician, Maxine, was lingering in the doorway.
“Maxine, can I help you with something?” he asked. “You’re probably getting an earful from
Ellen about Ronnie, aren’t you?” She closed the door behind her. Matthew was alarmed by her
candor. The few times he had met with Maxine, she seemed quiet. Was Ellen bad-mouthing
Ronnie around the office? “Well, I can guarantee he’s not as bad as he says,” Maxine said.
“He’s really a good guy. Y’all did the right thing by promoting him.” “I’m glad to hear that”
said Matthew. “You know, he’s told us about the new systems, like the one for turning in our
hours, and we understand why they’re important. But Ronnie doesn’t drill down on us like Ellen
does. She’s way too intense for how we do things here. She always has been. She’s supposed to
be supporting us clinicians in our jobs, but she acts like we’re here to serve her. In my opinion,
Ronnie focuses on what matters: the patients.” Matthew replied, trying for diplomacy, “The
patients are important.” “He understands what they need more than any of us, really---with his
son and all” said Maxine. Matthew responded, “OK, Maxine. Thanks for your input.” She
turned to open the door and then paused. “If you ask me, Ellen’s the one who’s trouble” she
Two Sides to Every Story
Later that day. Matthew was in his makeshift office waiting for Ronnie, who was nearly
20 minutes late for their 3:00pm appointment. Clearly Ellen and Ronnie had completely different
work styles but Matthew’s plan for Kid Spectrum’s reorganization and growth hinged on
collaboration between administrative director and the director of clinical operations. No one else
had the right skills and experience for those roles. Ellen and Ronnie didn’t have to be best
friends, but he couldn’t let the tension between them turn into an “us-versus-them” battle
between the clinicians and the back office. That could completely derail his expansion strategy.
“I’m sorry I’m late.” Ronnie walked in and shut the door behind him. “I was with a
client, Harry. Eight years old, such a good kid but struggling with school and his aide seems like
she wants to give up. But we were making strides today.” Matthew appreciated how dedicated
he was. “How are you doing?” Ronnie asked. “I’m good, I’m good,” Matthew said. “But I
wanted to see how things are going with you and your team, particularly with the new systems,
the time sheets.” Ronnie answered, “Well, we’re easing into them, you know. These clinicians
aren’t worker bees. They’re used to being with the kids, helping kids, so they need time.”
Matthew offered, “We could do another training session if you thought it would make sense.”
“No, I don’t think that is necessary. We just need more time. All this emphasis on efficiency is
new for us. We’re dealing with some rough cases, families under a lot of stress. You can’t just
zip in and out because that’s what a time sheet calls for.” Ronnie said. Matthew nodded and said,
“Of course, the client comes first.” Ronnie responded, “Right. That’s what’s kept us in business
for so long.”
Matthew said, “But, we won’t stay in business without becoming more profitable. When
Arthur owned the company, he struggled with cash flow because reimbursement was so slow.
No insurer will pay us without the proper paperwork. If we want to grow the business---and help
more kids---we need to follow these new protocols. We can’t have a quarter of our staff out
every holiday.” “I know who’s complaining about that. It’s Ellen. She acts like we’re in the
military. Time sheets on time. No one gets sick. It’s just not realistic. She was obsessive before
but it’s getting ridiculous.” Ronnie paused and swallowed. “It’s like you’ve given her a license
to be more uptight.” Matthew responded, “As the administrative director, she needs
accountability from you and your team, Ronnie.” “And she has it. But I need a certain amount of
flexibility so that I can meet the needs of the kids. And frankly, she needs to back off.” Ronnie’s
face had turned red. This was the most worked up that Matthew had ever seen him.
Nipping This in the Bud
As he walked through the entrance of Austin’s Coffee, Matthew saw Arthur Hammond
already standing in line. Arthur’s tan was a shade deeper since their last encounter. Matthew
asked him, “Retirement treating you well?” Arthur said, “Very well, but I miss the office, the
people. The golf course is far less exciting.” Matthew said, as they sat down, “Thanks for
meeting with me.” Arthur responded, “My pleasure. I told you I’d always be available. You
spending more time here? Have you convinced that wife of yours to get more sun in her life?”
Matthew answered, “No, not yet, but I’ve been down for the past few weeks, trying to sort out
some issues in the office.” Arthur raised an eyebrow. Matthew continued, “It’s Ellen and
Ronnie” and explained the growing animosity. Arthur said, “Those two were always a bit like
oil and water. Ellen wanted more protocols, more stuff she could control. It sounds like it’s
gotten worse. Maybe the new power has gone to her head.” Matthew responded, “Yes, but we
need those things if we are going to grow the business---” Arthur interrupted, “Yes, but that’s
what was limiting us before. Ronnie is the heart of the office. He always has been.” He paused
and then asked, “I hope you’re not thinking of demoting him, are you?”
Matthew sighed and looked at Arthur, then said, “I’ve considered it, but there’s really no
one else who could fill the role. And my investors have no interest in expensive outside hires.
Besides, I think that it would only solve half of my problem.” Arthur responded, “That’s right.
Ellen isn’t going to go easy on anyone in that position.” Matthew thought about all the nagging
emails to Ronnie that Ellen had blind copied him on during the past week. She sent them even
when Ronnie was in the office, sitting five feet away from her. Arthur then asked, “What do
your investors say?” “I haven’t brought it to their attention yet. It’s not hurting the bottom line,
but it could, especially if reimbursements continue to come in so slowly, and if all this tension
hurts morale.” Arthur responded, “Exactly. You need to nip this in the bud.”
Matthew cringed and said, “I know, I know. That’s why I’ve been down here. I was
hoping a solution would come to me if I could see what was actually happening. They’re at each
other’s throats and I’m honestly not sure that I can have them in the same office anymore. I do
think that they’re just trying to do their jobs. Ronnie needs to get with the systems and he
promises that he will. I know that all of the clinicians like him, which is important, right? Ellen
is looking out for the business---following my protocols for the staff---even if she may be going
about it in the wrong way.” Arthur then asked, “Have you sat down with them?” Matthew
responded, “Yes, individually, but not together.” “Well”, said Arthur, “it sounds like you’re
stuck between a rock and a hard place.” Yes, Matthew thought, between Ellen and Ronnie.
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