Friday, December 08, 2006

All Worked Up

The other day, I blogged on Bob Sutton's forthcoming The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. In my post, I identified the four most common categories I'd run into in the course of my career:

  • Occasional Offenders
  • Credit Grabbers (inverse: Blame Gamers)
  • Weaklings
  • Charismatic Assholes (CA's)

In my book, the worst are the CA's, and here are a couple of encounters with CA's that I got pretty worked up over in the course of my career. Here are a couple of stories - real stories but fake names, based of course of some of the more florid names in the business news in the last few years. (Apologies - for the most part - to anyone I worked with who actually has one of these names.)

"Dennis": The picture in his office said it all. A blown up photo of Dennis hurling his year old son into the air. The camera has perfectly captured the look of sheer terror on junior's face as he starts his descent from 12 feet up - and the look of pure confidence, the exuberant smile that Dennis is wearing on his.

For a couple of years, Dennis played this game with the small, quirky software company that he led along with Bernie his co-CA. At quarter's end, we'd be running out of money, looking at a payroll we couldn't make, and figuring out what bills we could dodge. Then Dennis would fly off to somewhere, find an investor to suck in, and we'd be saved for yet another day.

I had the cat-bird seat for all this, because my job for quite a while was to write the business plans and presos Dennis used to get the money.

Dennis was never actually a mean CA - at least never to me - and you can certainly argue that those of us who worked there (and those who invested) were willing dupes caught up in the excitement and dazzling promise that our technology held. This was the 1980's and we were going to be "The Next Billion Dollar Software Company." Not quite: the company lasted almost 20 years and at its peak of legitimate revenue (i.e., revenue that came from selling products rather than from selling investors) I don't think we ever climbed above $10 million. So we were off by an order of magnitude or two.

Not surprisingly, the magic eventually wore off, Dennis ran out of suckers in his Rolodex, and we had to lay some people off. Dennis needed to fax the lay-off list to someone, and asked his admin to do it for him. I have seldom seen anyone as distraught in the workplace as Ella when she glanced at the list - handed to her without a cover sheet - and found her name on it. No, this wasn't deliberate cruelty, just an incredibly callous oversight.

Dennis's lack of awareness really shone through a few months later. Our investors, finally fed up with the money pit we'd become, started talking about bringing in a turnaround guy.

When Dennis relayed this news to our head of HR, he told her, "Liz, I really think they're trying to screw us." A rationale person might have had a different reaction to who was the screwer and who the screwee.

"Bernie: Sometimes he was co-Chairman, sometimes CEO, sometimes president - but Bernie was for a long time a co-CA of "The Next Billion Dollar Company (TNBDSC)." It is hard to describe what an entertaining and seductive individual Bernie was. Charming, affable, funny, and extremely brilliant, he could not only paint the future and our place in it, he was right up there with Bill Gates in his ability to attract unbelievably talented techies. The technology created at TNBDSC was bleeding edge - just dazzling. (That we could never properly find a home for it in the "real world" was another story.) When you were in Bernie's graces, well, 'Top of the World, Ma." You were really important to him. You, too, were charming, affable, funny, and extremely brilliant. But cross Bernie, disagree with Bernie, look cross-eyed at Bernie on the wrong day of the week. Look out.

At one point while I was on the TNBCD rollercoaster, I reported to Bernie. One day I was sitting in Bernie's office, along with a peer of mine, Martha. In the middle of a conversation that had nothing to do with the organization structure or who worked for whom , Bernie looked over at me and said, "You work for Martha now." Then went back to the non-related point he was making. No hint that this was coming, no foreshadowing, no talk about re-org.

Afterwards I let Bernie that this was a pretty shabby way to let me know I was being demoted. He just brushed me aside, smirked, said "I knew you wouldn't mind," and walked away.

Time and again, I had watched Bernie treat people like this and worse. I had heard him speak dismissively and cruelly about and towards people who were incredibly loyal to him, supporters of longstanding. Made no difference. Pushing back on Bernie or calling him - however neutrally and lightly - on his behavior, made little difference, other than to rile him up. If dagger looks could stab and kill....My big personal triumph was helping to extricate someone from a lay-off list who would have been completely devastated if she had lost her job working for him - even more distraught than Ella had been when Dennis had off'd her. If you were no longer useful to Bernie for whatever reason, that was it. If there were some whim or other that he wanted to follow, that was his reward for being the guy in charge.

Of course, what goes around, comes around....

A few weeks after Dennis got bounced by the new turnaround guy, Liz from HR and I were having lunch with Bernie.

"You're next," we told him.

"They wouldn't dare," he told us. "You girls just don't understand how business works. The turnaround guy is all holster, no gun." (This was because the turnaround guy was unfailingly, excruciatingly polite and well-mannered. Bernie read this as weakness. Hah!)

"But look how easily they got rid of Dennis," we said.

Bernie smirked again. "There's no way that the investors will pick him over me. I'm the founder, after all."

I believe those were the last words I heard Bernie utter as CEO of TNBDSC.

Jeff: Many years later, after I left TNBDSC, I joined what was to turn into one of the biggest financial fiascos of the era. At one point, the company brought its first outsider into its incredibly factionalized and political executive management team. Meet Jeff, our new Chief Marketing Officer.

If Dennis was a mostly unwitting asshole, and Bernie a deliberate one, Jeff was somewhat in between.

Like Dennis and Bernie, Jeff was charismatic, articulate, and made you feel like the most important person in the company - maybe even on earth - for that point in time. I will say that it was exciting working for him, and he had a passion for marketing that I believe was genuine, but may well have been part of the persona he'd cultivated.

One of the first things he did when he blew our way was decide that our business development guys didn't know how to "do a deal." This was because - once burned, errrrr, twice burned - they were now quite appropriately acting a bit shy around a partner deal that had all the elements of the two bad deals that we had struck - deals that were as close to a zero sum game as anything I've seen in business. Only worse. Multiply that big fat negative number by two.

But Jeff swanned his way in and announced, "I don't know why you haven't done a deal with XYZ. I told them that I'm going to show you how we do deals on the West Coast."

Well, it turned out that they do deals on the West Coast exactly the same way we do deals on the East Coast when we don't know what we're doing! The deal he signed, sealed, and smugly delivered for us was the one we had been rightfully resisting all along.

I ended up having a closer encounter with Jeff at his CA best. Without belaboring the details, he got himself involved in another little screw-up that got magnified all out of proportion, largely because he had created so many enemies among the other senior executives. (Antipathy towards Jeff was the one thing they all seemed united behind.) Anyway, no one could get a hold of Jeff, and our CEO asked the senior exec who'd been impacted by the screw-up to compose a note "clarifying" (i.e., spinning) the erroneous information that Jeff had made public, and which our sales guys were starting to get customer inquiries on. I was asked to help compose the note. I left Jeff a message about what I was doing and cc'd him on all the correspondence that related to this task. The note to the field was completely innocuous, and gave everyone cover without implying for one minute that anyone had done anything wrong.

Well, apparently someone had dones something terribly wrong, and that someones was me.

At 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, I read an e-mail from Jeff - written at 1 a.m. on the vaunted West Coast clock - railing against me for "sneaking around behind my back, consorting with one of my peers, and setting company policy, which is my prerogative as CMO of this organization." The e-mail rambled on for a while, making a really out-there claim about something Jeff somehow believed he had ordered me to do, and ended with "I consider this a very serious matter. Call me at 8 a.m. sharp my time. Again, I consider this an exceedingly serious matter."

My first reaction was, 'This asshole's going to fire me.' (My second was to ask two VP friends to go with me to the president and CEO if, indeed, I got fired. I wasn't going to go down easily on this one.)

I took the hours I had between reading the e-mail and the witching hour of our phone call to compose a message to Jeff, in which I outlined step by step what had happened during the "incident"; pointing out that he'd been informed every step of the way; and refuting the preposterous claim he had made. My note to Jeff was a model of composure, clarity, and calm. (Naturally, I had to write more than one draft.)

At 8 a.m. West Coast I nervously dialed Jeff's number. Only to get his voice-mail. I left a cordial message, noting that he might want to read my e-mail response to him before we spoke.

Which we never actually did that day.

Five hours after he stood me up on our phone date, he left me a message apologizing for his e-mail, telling me he'd been under a lot of stress, was tired when he sent it, etc.

Well, a few weeks later, Jeff was gone with the wind. (His tenure as CMO lasted all of 4 months. Someone in my group won the office pool on his departure date. I went way over: I'd given Jeff 6 months.)

When he left, Jeff sent me a nice little note telling me how much he'd enjoyed working with me, how lucky the company was to have someone like me, blah-di-blah-blah, and apologizing "if he'd ever done anything to hurt my feelings."

Hurt my feelings? No. Royally pissed me off? Yes.

I've run into Jeff a couple of times since "then." Our encounters have been enjoyable enough - he's a smart, interesting guy. I put him in the middlin' CA category - not without some guile, but not a deliberate, intentional asshole.

Not that I'll ever work with or for any of these guys again, but there's one thing I'm sure of: I'll never get worked up - or worked over - by them again.

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