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Tick. tock. ... For More Than 60 Minutes

October 26, 2008
by Joe Bormel
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Tick, Tock . . . For More Than 60 Minutes

A CEO’s Threatening E-mail Lives On . . . What Have We Learned?

In the spring of 2001, the CEO of Cerner wrote, arguable, a highly critical, internal, and exhaustively discussed email. An oft quoted “version” of

this email is available here.

I recently attended a national meeting where implications of that email's strengths and weaknesses were used in a balanced way during a leadership training course loosely related to CHIME.

Here's a

link to a high-level management article about leadership that's useful for background concerning management style and C-Level communication, and may aid in our interaction on this blog.

Women Execs Respond

There were a number of women in management, many of whom had 10 to 20 years of experience working for and with this founder/CEO, who appear to have had strong track records of significant accomplishments. They were, as far as I can tell, proven, effective managers. These women went to the CEO, after the email was distributed, and confronted him.

In essence, as I understand, they said, "

Look, we and many of our subordinates have to get kids off to school and have dinner with our families. This 'call some 7AM, 6PM and Saturday AM team meetings' recommendation, while interesting, doesn't solve our problem and creates new ones. We do get our work done; we do work nights and weekends as needed. We don't tolerate slackers either, and never have."

At the time the CEO’s email was distributed, I didn't have kids; the women’s perspective was one I hadn't considered. How times have changed, now that I have two children!

From my point-of-view, I don't think the moms were acting out of bravery or being defensive. They were being direct. Their message, I heard, was well received and taken into account. But no one seems to talk about their action or management’s response. Still, it was great to see. Where do you stand?

Subordination – The Opposite of Insubordination

The direct subordinates of the CEO (male and female), also took action. Through direct communication with executives inside and others outside of the company, they acknowledged that the email was ill-advised. They also personalized it by saying, “

Have you ever felt like writing an email like that?” By all indications, the vast majority of respondents had that feeling. In 2008, what’s your response?

Stock Price

It's been often cited that the stock price went down as a result of the email. I've followed the stock for years, before and after the event. The impact of the email on the trading price lasted days, not weeks, and was negligible.

My goal with this blog is not to make a statement about the appropriateness of the email, although your thoughts are most welcome. Rather, I've been impressed by how the executives involved used candor and directness to move past it.

They even made a light hearted joke of it.

Of course my perspective is just that, a perspective. What else should we consider, and most important, have we learned anything of value from the email and its results over time? Further, based upon what any of you know about this event, have there been any lasting, unintended consequences?

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