Pity City for CEOs

Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll, which makes high-end furniture under the brands Herman Miller, Knoll, and Design Within Reach, was trying to explain over Zoom why her employees should  focus on landing a big deal rather than mourning the fact that their bonuses had been taken away.

I had an old boss who said to me one time, you can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there, so people, leave Pity City. Let’s get it done.

Get the damn 26 million. Spend your time and your effort thinking about the 26 million we need, and not thinking about what are you gonna do if you don’t get a bonus. All right.

Let’s get it done. Thank you. Have a great day.

Owen, whose bonus last year was $4 million, later apologized, but the clip quickly went viral. 

In an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, authors Vanessa Fuhrmans and Joseph Pisani portray Owen’s video message as yet another example of the challenges CEOs face in today’s hybrid marketplace.

Although a strong case can be made that Owen is uniquely tone deaf, many chief executives find the pressure of Zoom to be hard to bear, according to Peter Rahbar, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in employment matters.

“You’re always on, there’s no time off, and you have to assume that you could be recorded,” he told the Journal.  

In order to combat potentially damaging leaks, last month, Zoom introduced a new feature that allows an account owner or administrator to watermark a video with a viewer’s email address. Employees at Better.com said they noticed email watermarks on their corporate Zoom calls, but a spokesperson for the company denied that it did this in order to stop viral videos.

(Better.com’s CEO had his moment in the sun in 2021, when he callously fired 900 employees on a video call.)

Regardless of whether you are broadcasting a message to employees over Zoom or talking to them one on one, there is probably never a good time to tell someone who works for you that it is unfair of them to take care of their children while they are supposed to be working, as James Clarke, CEO of Clearlink, a Utah marketing firm, did this week. 

As Bill McGowan, founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, a communications coach, explained to the Journal, “These are real human beings you need to connect with.”

Still, that seems to be a very hard – and expensive – lesson for many CEOs to learn.

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