On April 28, Ian McGugan, as staff writer for the Globe and Mail, published an article on nasty CEOs. He cited Hunter Harrison from CP Rail, 3G, the owners of Tim Hortons and Kraft Heinz, and Bill Ackman of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. “For managers like these, nothing succeeds like nastiness. They specialize in slashing jobs, purging waste and generally inflicting terror on their corporate empires—a practice that endears them to many money managers.”
I am not going to write about the seemingly bottomless greed of Wall Street or Bay Street, nor the—to me—flawed notion that the only purpose of a business is to grow the bottom line. Nor am I going to write about the irony that I find in the near-deification of these nasty managers at the same time that consumers say they want the products and services they buy to be supplied by companies whose values they share. Rather, all this talk of nastiness led me to think about some rather nasty trends affecting the nature of our work environments.
Trend #1: Technology and data, or the push to make organizations more productive and agile, while also more impersonal and exacting. Think Amazon: people continue to seek and hold on to jobs at Amazon, despite a culture that has been referred to as “punishing.” A 2015 New York Times article describes horrific examples of the impact of the work culture. It also features examples of employees who stay, citing the pride that comes from being pushed to excel: beyond the limits that they had thought they had. Others talk about the “thrilling power to create.” But the bottom line is that “Amazon is driven by data,” says Liz Pearce, a former Amazon executive. “It will only change if the data says it must—when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”
Trend #2: The growing distance from the employee-customer interface. As organizations get bigger, the ability of management to know—or care about—the interface between employees and customers diminishes. I remember being dismayed when the SVP of Retail Banking at one of the big banks in Canada (a client of mine in the 80’s) gave his assistant his bank book and told her to go cash a check for him; he never went into a branch and so had no idea what it was like to be a teller—even though the project we were working on was all about designing the “branch of the future.” The recent experiences of travelers on overbooked United and Air Canada flights attest to a level of gross insensitivity to the discomfort and stress associated with air travel these days. But think about the employees for a minute.
Just this past Wednesday in the Atlanta airport, I watched an earnest, harassed gate agent trying to find four people who would give up their seats on an overbooked flight. She probably has to do this sort of thing every day, at least once or twice. This aspect of her role is defined by a group of people working in flight management and scheduling, who have calculated that overbooking optimizes revenues and profitability. That may be so. The gate agent remained polite and professional, but I would not want to have her job!
Trend #3: Willingness to accept an available option as satisfactory: to “satisfice” in the face of the need to move fast. With the need to make quick decisions, to respond to crises, to deal with near-constant disruptive forces often leads to some rather nasty—read unprincipled, superficial, questionable—decision-making. I heard a story recently about a CEO deciding that the best way to deal with negative customer feedback was to find ways to denigrate the competition. Easier to do that than fix some very challenging internal problems. Hardly anyone pushed back. A C-suite executive I know recently stepped down from a great job because he felt that the decisions being made at head office were rarely well-thought-through.
Clearly, if you work at—or survive in—any of these companies, the impact on your morale, commitment to the organization, the willingness to innovate, etc., will be hugely negative. It is hard to push back against these forces if you aren’t the top guy or gal.
But empathy, moral clarity and plain old common sense can make a huge difference as well. I was speaking to the EVP HR the other day, who told me what the CEO had decided to do with a closure of a significant operation several hundred miles from the corporate center to take place in two years. They told everyone at the location, from the senior team on down that they had the opportunity to relocate and that they would have jobs. They only asked that employees who decided not to relocate provide them with enough notice to be able to adjust; after all, they were providing people with effectively two years’ notice.
There are non-nasty CEOs out there. Find them; buy their services and products; go to work for them. Find ways to fight against the nasty ones.