To have and have not

1937-002-pho-haves-and-have-nots-vv600xAs is almost always the case with the monthly issue of PR Week, I learn more from Don Spetner's column than any other.

In his most recent precis, Spetner reflects on the amazing perquisites he received when, at the relatively tender age of 29, he was named an officer at an energy company.

Like every leader from Alexander the Great and Tiberius to Jack Welch and Dennis Kozkowski, Spetner grew attached to his perks (i.e. free gas, first class travel, etc.). But, sure as rain, he felt the loss when, after joining a different organization, Don was forced to begin paying for such perks from his own pocket.

I can relate. I labored for two large agencies that, like mega agencies past and present, featured a distinct caste system: those who had arrived and those who hadn't.

At the first, the entire New York office was closed for a full day to volunteer our services to the Bronx Botanical Garden. So far, so good. But, as we rank-and-file types filed into rickety school buses, the CEO and his entourage piled into his sleek, black Mercedes and sped to, and from, the distant venue. I won't reprint the epithets shouted by my peers as the CEO zoomed past our buses, but they weren't pretty.

At the second shop, I was the newly-named president and, as such, a member of the privileged class. I was told by the CFO that my private secretary would serve my breakfast and lunch on fine china and that, along with the CEO, I should dine in the latter's private dining room.

I didn't play by those, or other distasteful, rules (no doubt invented by Marie Antoinette). In fact, I would often join what the CEO called the hoi polloi at the J. Walter Thompson cafeteria, sometimes even bringing a sandwich back to my desk. Horrors! That didn't sit well. So, the CEO stormed into my office, closed my door and said, “Look Steve. You're no longer one of them. You're one of us, and should start acting like it. Stop rubbing elbows with the great, unwashed masses (he made himself laugh with that observation).” I didn't heed his advice and, for that and other alleged transgressions against the State, was sent packing 15 months later.

Spetner's pearls are highly relevant for two reasons:

 - They're reflected in the Red State/Blue State divide that's tearing our country apart. Many Red Staters are like the young Spetner, the Mercedes-riding CEO and the let-them-eat-cake potentate: they believe they worked hard to attain their perks and shouldn't have to share them with others. Most Blue Staters, on the other, appreciate what they're accomplished and are all too happy to spread the wealth.

 - A corner suite sense of entitlement, fueled by countless perks, can lead to the isolation and hubris that, in turn, has prompted so many CEOs to commit so many seemingly stupid blunders. Like rock stars and elite athletes, high-ranking agency and corporate executives believe the usual rules simply don’t apply to them. At best, that can create hostility. At worst, it can lead to organization-wide dysfunction and breaches in moral and ethical behavior.

I have a solution for the perquisite-entitled executive mentality addressed in Spetner's column: job swapping. Nothing will humble a CEO faster than sweating through a full day at the reception desk (Note: I did just that and reported on it in Jan '11; I have also had stnts as account executives here in New York, and in our London and San Fran offices.) or juggling the myriad assignments a junior account executive is required to perform to keep three or more accounts humming along.

I wish the powers that be at PR Week, the other trades and the senior executives who read our industry's trade publications would heed Spetner's words (and my suggestions). There's a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in our society. And, there's a similar divide in PR between those who have, and those who don't. Both portend disaster and both need to be addressed.

7 thoughts on “To have and have not

  1. He’s gone on to the great hereafter, but I think of him every time a Ford family member gets busted for DWI.

  2. Years ago my old man told me to read Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, particularly for his description of the Ford Motor Company’s excesses like how the executive dining room was run.
    Apparently Henry Ford II (also known as Hank the Deuce) loved the hamburgers in the dining room. He said no other restaurant in the U.S. did them better.
    And Hank the Deuce was right, since the executive chef secretly ground up raw rib-eye or tenderloin, at who knows what cost; Ford was a public company at this point.
    In that mindset, it’s always good to be king.

  3. Gotta love the separate Christmas parties, Julie. Why not just call the rank-and-file workers ‘Untouchables” and be done with it? Amazing.

  4. I once worked for an investment bank that actually encouraged this caste system mentality. They had separate dining rooms for the haves and have-nots, and even had separate Christmas parties. It was awful for morale, but the executives were too busy counting their money to care. Needless to say, I couldn’t work in that environment for long.

  5. Yes, Peter, there is a definite caste system at many agencies, particularly the larger ones. I think you and I both learned the hard way that global holding company environments were toxic to our health and well-being.

  6. Someone once told me that my agency career didn’t soar to tremendous heights because I have a Groucho Marx Complex: I don’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.
    OK, I’m honest enough to admit there’s more to it than that. Still, I’ve witnessed enough of what Repman describes to know it isn’t for me.