“…To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for…. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief…I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.”
—Greg Smith, New York Times, March 14, 2012
“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Google. During my time there I became fairly passionate about the company… The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus… From this innovation machine came strategically important products like Gmail and Chrome, products that were the result of entrepreneurship at the lowest levels of the company. Of course, such runaway innovative spirit creates some duds, and Google has had their share of those, but Google has always known how to fail fast and learn from it. In such an environment you don’t have to be part of some executive’s inner circle to succeed. You don’t have to get lucky and land on a sexy project to have a great career. Anyone with ideas or the skills to contribute could get involved. I had any number of opportunities to leave Google during this period, but it was hard to imagine a better place to work. But that was then, as the saying goes, and this is now… Truth is I’ve never been much on advertising. I don’t click on ads. When Gmail displays ads based on things I type into my email message it creeps me out….The old Google was a great place to work. The new one?”
—James Whittaker, blog, March 13, 2012
“I am writing to say goodbye. Recently…a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop…was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”
—Andrew Lahde, Financial Times, October 17, 2008
What meaning shall we make of these letters? One of my great teachers, C. Roland Christenson, once remarked, “Professional schools are good at teaching you how to do a job, but give little attention to how to enter or exit.” Nor is there any guidebook to letting folks know what you think as you stride out the door for the last time. It’s no wonder then that the rare publication of a “parting shot” letter creates a certain frisson in the media. Such occurred last week when the first two messages went public; the third created a stir in 2008. There was much discussion on the merits of the writers’ views (the comments on the letters are at least as entertaining as the letters themselves). But no one paused to reflect on what it takes to exit well under adverse circumstances. To what extent are dignity, grace, justice, and self-respect served by a “parting shot”?
In the interest of brevity, I‘ll leave it to the interested reader to read the full text of the three letters. From this small sample, you might conclude that if you want to write a “parting shot” that will gain attention, it should contain at least three elements:
· Grief. All three letters state how unhappy the authors are that things have changed. Greg Smith alleges that Goldman Sachs has become morally bankrupt. James Whittaker grieves that Google has lost its entrepreneurial flair and intrudes into personal privacy, and that Google+ doesn’t challenge Facebook. Andrew Lahde is unwinding his firm, having profited from a massive short position against subprime debt—that play won’t be profitable any longer.
· Loathing. The three letters brim with contempt—and as the publishers of the lurid supermarket tabloids show, contempt sells. Andrew Lahde despises the “idiots,” the “people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades,” and the Ivy League Aristocracy. Greg Smith despises traders (the Andrew Lahdes, perhaps) who disrespect their clients. And James Whittaker has issues with Larry Page and the advertisers.
· Exhortation. Every parting shot needs a “so what?” Once the author has seized the attention of a reader with grief and loathing, one has a bully pulpit. Greg Smith urges a “wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again.” Whittaker avoids the soap-box, though his message is clear: dial back the new commercial focus of Google. And Andrew Lahde proposes the legalization of marijuana, a non sequitur so jarring as to turn grief and loathing into farce.
If all of this appeals to you and you are contemplating sending such a “parting shot,” consider some questions first.
1. What problem are you trying to solve? James Whittaker and Greg Smith espouse causes: the redirection of a firm back to successful origins. Andrew Lahde’s letter, on the other hand, is about ‘me’—the problem he is solving is letting people know about his retirement from active hedge fund management. The “parting shot” that says “look at me” is eminently forgettable.
2. Is a “parting shot” really necessary? One has a range of channels to air one’s concern about the direction of a company: management, an ombudsman, a meeting with the CEO, a private letter to the board of directors, and a meeting with an influential shareholder. One writes a public letter if one has a very important point and thinks no one is listening. For instance, a public letter might be an outlet for a whistleblower who discovered widespread corruption. Some of the comments on Greg Smith’s letter refer to him as a “whistleblower”—but his letter openly acknowledges that, “I don’t know of any illegal behavior.” He mainly reaffirms sentiments that by now have emerged in earlier articles, litigation, and regulatory inquiries. Similarly, the failure of Google+ and the shift in business focus at Google are old news. And Lahde’s letter is made redundant by the return of original capital and profits to his clients. If your letter doesn’t say anything new, then why write it?
3. What is the opportunity for servant leadership? As I have said in earlier postings (see this and this) you must be clear about whom or what you serve—is your missive directed to them or in favor of them? Greg Smith’s letter is clearest in advocating the interests of clients and the future of Goldman. But his letter casts wide condemnation on the employees of the firm: “I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years” (my italics). Goldman has about 33,000 employees. Do none of them espouse any commitment to clients or to the future of the enterprise? Is this broad condemnation the best way to serve them and their clients, or to serve the redirection of the firm?
4. Where are you going with this? Genuine change follows sustained advocacy and action. Andrew Lahde has dropped from sight, as has Greg Smith. James Whittaker has moved to Microsoft, which several commenters mocked as inconsistent with his appeal for entrepreneurship. If your public letter is more than self-indulgent venting, will you follow through on your advocacy by shaping a vision and strategy, enlisting others, and taking positive actions?
5. Are you ready for the backlash? The commentariat on the Internet can be brutal. You should expect the attacked firm to reply vigorously. Some co-workers who may have been friendly will dump you. Your letter may well foreshorten your job prospects. You may be motivated with the self-righteousness of a saint, but as Mark Twain wrote, “Be good and you will be lonely.” If you’re not sure whether you are ready to bear the cost, return to question #1.
The “parting shot” is an art form. Like “kiss and tell” memoires, they offer a public glimpse into a private sphere. But unless one has strongly affirmative answers to the five questions, the “parting shot” letter will likely be a costly, vacant, and ephemeral gesture.
How to exit well in a mood of protest? Focus very carefully on the essence of a real business problem deserving attention. Consider how justice is best served, from all points of view. Offer constructive suggestions. Avoid the temptations of celebrity and ego. Carry your message to those in a position to act positively on it. Frame your advocacy around serving some one and some cause.
If getting even is in your heart, then living well may be the best revenge. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985. He redoubled his dedication to design-friendly information technology, founded two companies, and returned to Apple as CEO in 1997 to lead the spectacular introductions of a stream of new products. He was a volatile personality, but sent no “parting shot.” Most observers would say his subsequent success well avenged his firing in 1985.
The decline in trust in business institutions has plummeted in the recent financial crisis and recession. One survey finds that trust is rising again, but that in the latest U.S. results, only about half of the respondents trust business to do the right thing. “Parting shots” are a symptom of this social and institutional stress. Writers of such letters must consider their frame of mind (are they stressed?) and motives. Do they want to be part of the problem (amplifying the stress) or part of a solution?
Readers of such letters should view them critically as part of the narrative of stress. Let us study them for insights on the ever-moving changes in corporate culture and strategy and on changing the things that need to be changed. And let us acknowledge that any “parting shot” is one imperfect observation of a complex and dynamic social system.