The Saboteur

business strategySent: April 14, 2:00 p.m.

From: Gayle, CEO

To: Robert, Director of Product Strategy

Subject: Rethinking Annual Plan


As we turn the corner on the third quarter here, I wanted to touch base on our annual product-rollout plan. I know the big launch is already planned for the fourth quarter, and we’re depending on holiday sales to help push us over our sales goal, but I’m having some second thoughts.

I know you spent the better part of last year with the research firm. We did spend a fair amount of money on market research, and there was consensus in the focus groups, but I’m just not sure it’s the direction we should be heading.

I had dinner with one of the principals at the private-equity firm where my boyfriend works (it’s his boss, actually), and I explained our annual strategy and product-rollout plan, and he thinks we are on the wrong track.

I didn’t have a lot of time to go over the research findings, but I explained it in summary. He thinks that our competitors are just doing a better job of pushing new product into the market and maybe we should consider putting more energy into the products we have.

He’s not in our target market and doesn’t use our products or our competitors’ products, but he is a private-equity guy and really smart. He’s in their professional services division, so he doesn’t really have any expertise in CPG. But again, he’s a private-equity guy and is all about the money, and he thinks we are spending too much money on market research, and I should just trust my gut.

My gut says that we’ve come this far with the products we have, so why not do more of what we know how to do and what we know will be successful? I mean, it got us this far, right?


Excellent plan, Gayle. This has to be super demoralizing for Robert, having spent an entire year doing market research; then presenting a thoughtful, fiscally sound, and strategic plan for success; and marching toward the incentive package you put together for him at the beginning of the year.

There’s no better way to keep your team on their toes than by changing horses midstream as often and as disruptively as you can. After all, your business needs to be flexible, and your people need to be able to pivot at a moment’s notice.

You’re doing a fantastic job of getting solid advice from advisors as well. There’s no better way to seek sage wisdom than to reach out to people who don’t know your business at all—that way their opinions are completely objective. Now Robert will have plenty of time to look around at what your competitors are doing, and maybe next year you can just follow in their footsteps and skip all that spending on market research.


There are two important themes in this anecdote.

The first is the theme of the saboteur. This is the leader who, for one reason or another, can’t commit to innovation or change and actively seeks out ways to sabotage a strategic plan at the most critical time. It stands to reason that many founders have a deep-seated fear of stepping outside the safety net of “doing things the way we always have” because that is what got their business to where it is. But this fear often rears its ugly head when change and progress are the most important factors for survival.

The second theme is good old-fashioned stick-to-what-we-know-and-make-it-happen-ness. Many entrepreneurs are impatient, want instant results, and aren’t willing to stay the course of a strategic plan. Solid plans for business innovation and change take time and perseverance, which are often in short supply at the top.

Either way, leaders are usually the ones to sabotage the best-laid plans. Sabotage can come in the form of cutting budgets, under-resourcing, reacting to outside advice, or even just plain sticking their noses in where they don’t belong (as we’ll discuss in our next chapter, “The Monkey’s Wrench”).

When saboteurs at the top take aim at a strategic direction or plan, look first for a lack of confidence, or insecurity. Not many leaders would admit to their management team that they are fearful of taking a big step, but they all hold the power to make decisions to prevent that step from occurring. They have at their disposal a myriad of methods to sabotage a perfectly laid plan without anyone being the wiser.

If this is you, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Is the plan not well-rationalized or not rationalized to your satisfaction?

Do you need to take a step back and ask for more research or evidence? Or do you need to simply come clean with your team and tell them you’re having second thoughts and don’t know where they are coming from? Either way, come clean before you inadvertently (or purposely) use sabotage as a cover-up for something else that’s making you question where your business is headed.

If you are on the pointy end of the saboteur’s stick, and your leader is actively undermining what he or she directed you to do in the first place, don’t just sit by and let it happen. Even the best of leaders can find themselves in this position, and they are counting on their teams to tell them if they are being led astray. Work with your team and dig into the problem with your leader— “manage up”—and see if you can help your leader find the root cause of their fear and work through it with them.

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