The first role I held outside of academia was incredibly enlightening.
It was a high-tech start-up that had the funkiest culture you could imagine. Maybe start-up is the wrong term seeing as there were close to 2,000 employees by the time I joined in 2002.
But it had that start-up feel.
People were open. There were no silos. Stuff got done. Issues were resolved. Foosball was played. Beer was consumed.
Until one day, a new CEO arrived.
A suit and tie? Were we turning into blue, the evil and stoic empire of IBM?
Nobody wears a suit let alone a tie here. What is happening? Is he going to institute a dress code?
Clothing may not seem all that hierarchical, but it’s an example of a senior leader exhibiting power while being fantastically clueless as the chief commander. Organizations these days are full of leaders like this. Had he bothered to be briefed on the culture of our firm before he accepted the role?
There were other examples the new CEO expertly demonstrated where he blindly shone a light on his penchant for obliviousness … while enforcing his hierarchical status.
When the new CEO took the role, he literally had a customized desk made for himself. Apparently the wooden one in the office that he took over was not good enough. Unsurprisingly, the desk that he had manufactured came with the top surface made of marble. The chatter at the foosball table was non-stop about the CEO’s new marble desk. How’s that for enforcing your hierarchy? How’s that for being out of touch with the 2,000 people who made the company what it had become to that point?
Perhaps the best example came when our privately-held firm made a decision to sell. No surprise there. “Exits” happen all the time in the high-tech space. It was expected.
But the manner in which employees were informed about the exit was another matter.
Picture yourself in a large, open-concept lounge area complete with a fireplace, bean bag chairs, bright colours and natural sunlight. Splendid surroundings indeed.
You are told to convene in said area for a big announcement. No surprise here, really, as the culture was one of constant huddles and big discussions. It was the epitome of an open working environment.
In walks the new CEO.
Thankfully he lost the tie.
“We just want you to know that we are preparing to sell the company,” said the Sears-like mannequin posing as our CEO.
We all knew it was coming. Most of us held a nominal number of options as part of our compensation package, so what’s not to like about a few more bucks in our pockets? So long as whoever buys the company treats us with dignity and allows our quirky culture to remain, who cares?
But it was what this out-of-touch (start singing Hall & Oates, because I know you want to) CEO said next that might haunt me forever.
“And once you cash in your options, you can look forward to buying a second home or that vacation property you’ve always wanted.”
This clueless megalomaniac had absolutely no idea who his employees were. The chatter at the foosball table was indicative.
“Second house? Does this guy even know that I rent a condo?” said one developer.
“I’d love a vacation home, but I sure hope my husband will enjoy the large tent that I can afford,” joked another.
The new CEO evidently had no idea that the number of options people held were not in the tens of thousands. For many of the employees their options numbered in the hundreds, maybe a few thousand. There would be no second home or vacation property for the employees. There would be a nice financial bonus, of course, but not within the extraordinary lens this CEO was using.
There is no doubt in my mind, many leaders today continue to exhibit cluelessness in their behaviour and interactions with employees. If you’ve ever watched the film, Christmas Vacation, where Clark Griswald’s CEO decides to eliminate holiday bonuses and madness ensues thereafter, you now have another example of senior leadership benightedness. These leaders are the consummate ding-a-lings, you might say.
The problem that supervenes for employees is that they lose faith in their most senior leader. When faith erodes, so too does commitment, innovation and effort. When employees reach this depth of despair, they are then quick to enter the trough of disillusionment.
Thankfully the new CEO did not last that long as an acquisition was rather quick, and the acquiring company worked hard to unify our quirky, collaborative culture with theirs.
I occasionally think about that CEO wondering if he knows how his actions caused damage to his character and reputation.
Probably not. He’s undoubtedly too busy buying a third home and a fourth vacation property somewhere.
Dan Pontefract is author of the forthcoming book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, releasing May 10, 2016. Pre-order here.