Stories Told

A leader’s character

A long time ago I had a creative job with an energetic entrepreneurial division of a large global firm. They made a killer product that had lots of buzz and made lots of money. When I interviewed for the job, my future bosses told me that their product’s high quality is what made it sell, that my position would be key to delivering that quality, and that they would make sure I had the resources I needed for my work. They said I’d even have my own office, because they believed that in a quiet workspace I could really sweat the details and produce my best work.

I had spent my career cutting corners in cubicles. Their promises charmed me so much that I was unfazed when they said, in the interest of full disclosure, that the CEO would soon defend himself against sexual-harassment charges a former employee had leveled.

The suit settled as I joined the company, but if anybody said anything to me about the terms, I didn’t hear them. I was too busy happily immersing myself in my work. I had tremendous, almost entrepreneurial, autonomy, and was trusted to shape the company’s products. The tight deadlines only made me sharper. I turned to my smart and focused colleagues for ideas, and those conversations always energized me. I also made connections with interesting people all over the country, some of whom rose to fame and fortune because of our wildly successful product.

The charismatic CEO frequently flew in from his Bay-area office and always stopped by everybody’s office to say hello, calling us all by first name. He’d bring us all into the large conference room, bring in lots of food, and dazzle us with his big vision for the company’s future and for the strong culture he was building to fuel it. The CEO usually brought his guru with him, a psychologist who specialized in coaching top corporate leaders. The two had developed a list of ten core values around teamwork, quality, and work ethic that were supposed to be the platform for that culture. The CEO always asked us to quote from the values and gave prizes for getting them right.

The money kept pouring in. We tripled the number of employees in eighteen months. The Christmastime bonus checks, which the CEO delivered personally with a few kind words about specific projects I had worked on, were generous.

The CEO visited one day to talk about extending the product line, and a huge number of projects it would bring. It seemed to me that this would dilute and devalue the brand, but he had always been right so far, so I went with it. My workload jumped; soon it was double, and then it was triple. I found myself routinely working 60-hour weeks and sometimes more, the quality and timeliness of my work suffering just so I could go home and have a couple hours with my family at night. Management began watching us closely, calling us on the carpet for the smallest missteps. My autonomy eroded; soon I was only shepherding a rigid process. These things stood in contrast to the core values, which were still preached. People started to grumble; those who grumbled too loud were escorted to the door.

Material costs rose and the extended product line didn’t sell as well as before. Stiff cost controls crept in. Christmas bonuses dwindled and raises became paltry. The CEO all but stopped visiting; he was said to be busy on endless sales calls – and I kept hearing troubling stories of extravagance, booze, and sex on these trips while the rest of us were left to do more with less. The CEO sent a series of lesser executives to keep tabs on us, creepy men who made the hair on my neck stand on end. Then, the last Christmas I worked there, the CEO came to the office to hand out tiny bonus checks with the a look in his eye like my addicted uncle used to get when he’d been snorting God knows what. He couldn’t remember my name and praised me for a project I hadn’t worked on.

What had been an energizing workplace had become a culture of fear and control. I denied it for months, but the intense pressure never let up. I reached my limit on one particularly ugly project. I worked late into the night for weeks trying to save it, but failed. I couldn’t deny the changes any more, and I quit in exhaustion and defeat. I took a lesser job with a tiny division of another well-known global firm, relieved to retreat into obscurity and reduced responsibility. Most of my former colleagues, equally miserable, soon escaped as well; even the CEO’s guru moved on.

A few years later, amid news stories of Bill Clinton’s challenges with the truth, the guru wrote an article for Inc. about the consequences when a leader lives a hypocrite’s life. Go read it – it’s about this CEO. Reading it dug at my scabs. I had previously blamed all of management for how badly things turned out, but after reading this article I could see that the blame rested solely on the CEO’s shoulders. Any man who would lie in court about his behavior, because only profits mattered, had to be the root of all that was wrong with that company.

The other day, looking at my LinkedIn network, I was surprised to see this CEO’s name as a third-level connection – he knows somebody who knows somebody who knows me. He now holds a high leadership position in a different division of that same company to which I escaped (for which I no longer work). I Googled his name and that company’s name and one of the first few results mentioned that he was named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct, harassment and intimidation, and internal office sabotage among his executives. The suit even mentioned a particular sex toy. I was not shocked to learn that there has been high turbulence and turnover in the business units he led there. I was shocked to learn that he was just promoted.

I’m left to conclude that this CEO was right. His character hasn’t mattered, just his ability to bring profits. I feel sorry for the people who work under him.

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6 thoughts on “A leader’s character

  1. Leo says:

    Isn’t this lack of ethics only all too typical of corporate America? Greed seems to be at the heart of our nation’s (indeed, our world’s) current economic crisis. Greed and ethical behavior are, to say the least, at odds with each other.

    BTW, What does “Reading it dug at my scabs.” mean?

    Like

  2. Janet Chlebek says:

    Wow, I know a little about this, unfortunately. I am always amazed that these people seem to land on their feet and get away with.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Knowing when to leave may be the hardest thing that anyone can learn – Jim Grey

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