A bunch of us piled into front row seats in a large auditorium to witness the first speech of an incoming CEO of a major corporation. Needless to say, there was real excitement in the air.
The organization had been struggling, to say the least. It had shuffled CEOs more often than Elizabeth Taylor has husbands. The stock had tanked. Hostile takeover threats were in the wind and morale was lower than that of a NJ Transit passenger facing an indefinite delay.
So, the hundreds in attendance and the thousands connected by video sat on the edge of their collective chairs as the new CEO began. Would we be witnessing a corporate version of FDR's “You Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” speech? An update of JFK's “Ask not…” clarion comments? We couldn't wait.
And, then the CEO lowered the boom and told the great, unwashed masses that a new, zero tolerance era had been ushered in. The organization would be lean and mean, with an emphasis on the latter. It would no longer be the media's favorite whipping boy. Nor would analysts be questioning each and every move. Most importantly, the CEO would put an end to “leaks” to the press, who had been gleefully reporting the organization's every misstep courtesy of myriad, in-house deep throats. The speech was a no nonsense, take no prisoners riff, more worthy of a Stalin than a Gandhi.
And then came the question-and-answer session. One timid guy in the back of the room tentatively raised his hand and asked: “A few of us engineers have direct relationships with reporters. Is it ok if we still speak with them?”
Oh baby. Duck and cover. First, the CEO screamed, “What a stupid question!” That was quickly followed by a very direct threat: “Speak to the press without permission and I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”
The silence was deafening. (I love that phrase, BTW.)
There were a few, more half-hearted questions and choice responses. But, that was it. The die had been cast. The tone had been set. The new era had been ushered in.
We were dumbfounded to say the least. I honestly hadn't experienced this sort of direct management-by-fear, screaming and cursing session since the mid 1980s when I worked for a CEO who’d once played for the Chicago Bears.
Needless to say, the message had been received. The organization battened down its respective hatches and the purge began. Scores of senior executives vanished overnight. Messaging was tightly controlled and the fear was passed down the organizational food chain until it reached the lowest common denominator: the external agencies.
We walked on eggshells for the 15 months in which we served the company and were routinely beaten up, back stabbed and patronized.
We've moved on and, truth be told, the organization has recovered some of its external mojo. But, at what price? Is living one's life in fear worth a paycheck? Not for me, I'd rather do what's right and work in a culture that allows risk-taking, supports humor, open communication and camaraderie. If that means a one-way ticket to f***ing Mars, then please reserve an aisle seat for me.