AOL CEO: “at a human level it was unfair”

Imagine 1,000 people listening in as you get sacked. If you haven’t heard the audio tape of AOL’s Chairman, Tim Armstrong, sacking an employee during a teleconference call you can hear it for yourself [ UPI link]. Armstrong has since apologized not just to Abel, the employee he fired, but everyone in the company. CNN Money posted his memo: “…I am writing you to acknowledge the mistake I made last Friday during the Patch all-hands meeting when I publicly fired Abel Lenz. It was an emotional response at the start of a difficult discussion dealing with many people’s careers and livelihoods. I am the CEO and leader of the organization, and I take that responsibility seriously. We talk a lot about accountability and I am accountable for the way I handled the situation, and at a human level it was unfair to Abel. I’ve communicated to him directly and apologized for the way the matter was handled at the meeting…”  

Below is an excerpt from a Fox News Article, “AOL’s Armstrong: Boss or Workplace Bully” by Linda Dulye that contains her tips for CEO’s :

…Top bosses of organizations large and small should strive to create an environment that encourages their staff to speak up and offer ideas without retribution.

These three tips will help you get going:

Mind your say-do connection. Your actions speak louder than words. Saying one thing and doing another is noticed by others. You’ve got to go beyond simply professing interest in hearing others’ opinions. Stay calm in tone and relaxed in your body language when a contrary view is aired. Refrain from countering it or acting defensive by asking some open-ended questions.  Practice with a trusted colleague and focus on topics that are likely to trigger your hot button. Get her instant feedback on how your response measures up when countered.

Remove filters. I vividly remember working with Tony, a company president who inherited a fear-based workplace, spurred largely by the behavior of his predecessor. Among his early outreach practices was to conduct town hall meetings where he could speak—in person—with large groups of employees from multiple departments and levels. 

In his desire to hear straight from staffers, he eliminated the meeting MC role that had been traditionally assigned to the company’s human resources leader. He also stopped the practice of having employees write down comments on 3×5 cards, only to have them pre-reviewed and watered-down by the former president’s handlers. All those filters had put a lock on spontaneity and openness in communications between the workforce and top executive. 

Tony wanted a direct connection. He established some new meeting guidelines: he wanted to listen more than speak, no question or comment was off limits, and there would be no ‘meeting middlemen’ to buffer real exchanges. 

Tony’s new approach took several months for employees to both understand and trust. Once staffers realized that his ‘say-do’ style was in complete alignment, their voices were readily heard-during town hall meetings and after. Dozens would send Tony emails daily with comments and ideas. True to his no-filter rule, Tony read and answered them personally.

Praise in public. Apparently, Armstrong didn’t get the memo:  Praise in public; “punish” in private.  Whether you’re the CEO of a large organization, or the manager of a small department, it’s best to wait and counsel a member of the team who didn’t perform to expectations in a one-on-one setting, away from the crowd.  

Remember, any time you gather a group of employees together you’re tying up resources of time and money.  Don’t squander that investment by cutting someone off at the knees in front of everyone. No company can afford the operational or organizational loss triggered by plummeted morale. 

Use this valuable time wisely by finding opportunities to salute staffers who have gone above and beyond. Provide concrete explanations of what they did and how it contributed to business goals. By connecting those dots you can help others to see how they too can add value in their everyday jobs.

Many CEOs have earned their top spots by having the guts to make aggressive, shoot-from-the hip decisions that ultimately proved to be in the best interests of the company.  Here’s the caveat: make sure that when you shoot from the hip, the gun’s not pointed at your foot.

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