The Question

i-mustache-you-a-questionDon Spetner, who serves as a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick, also happens to author the most insightful content published in PR Week’s monthly issue.

His most recent column is entitled, “When the boss asks you ‘the question.’

Spetner referred to the moment in time that most of us face at some point in our careers: a new CEO has taken over, and asks you to provide an honest assessment of your peer’s strengths and weaknesses.

As Spetner notes, it’s an extremely delicate situation requiring a combination of authenticity and political savvy.

I was asked the question exactly one week after being named president of a moribund (and now defunct) company within the J. Walter Thompson empire.

On my first day of work, the CEO strolled into my lavishly appointed office, plunked down the biographies of all 70 employees and told me he’d like to discuss each, and every one four days hence. He suggested I use the time in-between to meet all 70 professionals.

And, so I did drive-by meetings over the next 96 hours, and walked into the CEO’s office for the discussion. That’s when he asked the question, “Which ones will you fire?” I was stunned to say the least.

The CEO smirked and added, “Look, the JWT people want us to trim the workforce by 15 percent within the next 30 days. Since I’ll be retiring soon (he finally did so a decade later), this is now your problem. I’ll expect your recommendations on Monday.” He then laughed at my predicament and sauntered into the hallway.

Talk about Sophie’s Choice! I was expected to fire 10 people I knew next to nothing about. It was unfair but indicative of many cutthroat corporate cultures.

I agonized all weekend long.

On Monday morning, I walked into the CEO’s office, and said, “There’s no way I can make an informed decision in so short a period of time. Oh, and by the way, how come you never mentioned the downsizing when you were wining-and-dining me to come on board as your successor?”

Needless to say, he didn’t like my response, said he worried if I was tough enough to ever become the CEO and fired those hapless souls himself later that day.

I left the firm 15 months later to launch Peppercomm.

So, that was my moment dealing with the question.

What was yours? I’d love to hear any and all stories and will judge your CEO worthiness based upon the anecdote.

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