Eliot Rosewater moments

Every once in awhile, you read something that blows your mind. Here’s today’s.

The author is Yan Anthea Zhang, a Professor of Management in Rice University’s MBA program. She’s writing about the sudden unexpected illnesses of two top CEOs – Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, and Oscar Munoz, the new CEO of United Airlines. (Munoz just took over after his predecessor suddenly resigned in the growing Chris Christie-related NY/NJ Port Authority scandal.)

Zhang writes:

My research partners and I recently finished a study that found that after witnessing the death of an independent director on the board, a CEO became less focused on acquisitions, as reflected in reduced number and magnitude of merger and acquisition deals.

Our findings are consistent with the prediction of the post-traumatic growth theory, which suggests that the death of a social peer may increase the focal person’s awareness of death and accordingly reduce the importance of extrinsic goals such as fame and wealth in the person’s decision-making. In these two incidents, Blankfein’s and Munoz’s illnesses may make other board members and top management team members of their companies think, “This could be me.”

Such a feeling of empathy is part of human nature and should be encouraged. Companies should strive to create a working environment that allows their executives and employees to better balance work and life. However, it should be noted that if people are too concerned about their potential health issues or even death, their motivation to strive for good performance and firm growth can be hampered. Therefore, it is crucial for the firm to care for the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers in a proactive manner.

It’s fascinating to watch Zhang try to square the circle here. She is acknowledging straight up that elite executives and board members are quite likely to be motivated by “extrinsic goals such as fame and wealth.”

When someone around them suddenly dies, they are susceptible to wondering what in God’s name they’re doing with their lives.

Zhang can’t tell us that’s a bad thing. She understands it’s deeply human and represents powerfully important personal growth. But she also knows it could very easily fly out of control, hampering “their motivation to strive for good performance and firm growth.”

What can she possibly say? Only that companies ought to pay a bit more attention to work/life balance, and especially “the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers.” But really, what could she say? Criticizing her is a bit too easy.

I don’t have anything super-profound to say about this. But I am interested in what she’s left unsaid.

First, there’s no sense that any of these people might be doing anything intrinsically important; for example, solving real problems, creating products or services that help people, mentoring employees to help them grow as individuals, building an organization with a lasting legacy.

I’ve been reading a lot of business literature lately, since I’m writing my 20-page research paper on this controversy. So I’m struck by the absence of those more positive ideas here. They’re not absent in all business literature, nor in all public discourse by executives. But this does seem to be a data point in assessing what really matters in the “commanding heights of the economy” (as we lefties used to call it back in the 1970s).

Second, corporate executives and board members are human like everyone else, even if allegedly somewhat more susceptible to psychopathy. But they do have two advantages that the people who work for them often don’t have: money and control.

Even if board members don’t choose to vote themselves high-end personal counselors to help them through their Eliot Rosewater moments, they do still have the resources to walk away. Every day they don’t, that’s a choice they got to make: lower their personal financial overhead, and do something else more meaningful. Or not.

I realize that, in their shoes, it’s hard to see it that way. But it’s objectively true. And their subordinates usually don’t have those choices.

Zhang isn’t writing about Amazon’s warehouse pickers or Walmart’s greeters here, though in fairness, she does say “executives and employees.” One might reasonably ask any company that decides to worry about “the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers” to do the same top to bottom. (Olive Garden waitresses lose close friends, too.) I don’t know if I’d hold my breath.

As I said, this isn’t super (or even marginally) profound. And it’s only advice in the very loosest sense. Such as: stay focused on those intrinsic motivations to “strive for good performance.” As you move towards the workplace, I think you are. But, of course, it gets harder.

(Maybe any advice I give you should have a disclaimer, like this generic one.)

Now that you’re just about through college, your likely career path doesn’t appear to include membership on the Goldman Sachs or United Airlines Board of Directors. (Though you never know.) I’m more concerned about you winding up with not enough money or control to have the life you want.

Ultimately, I do think you’ll be skilled enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, and focused enough to get there from where you already are.

It’ll help, though, if you generally know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

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