Over just a few days in mid-January, some eye-popping news about CEOs has emerged, all of it demonstrating how company culture manifests itself in leaders. The resignation of Boeing’s CEO amid revelations about internal red-flags on its 737 Max plane, a the grief- and anger-stricken response by Maple Leaf Foods’ CEO against President Trump’s actions in Iran, and a dramatic about-face decision to rehire Away’s fired CEO all tell us something about how internal culture informs leaders’ responses to crisis and change. Here’s an update of these events, and how culture figures into them:
“I am livid,” wrote Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain on Twitter Jan. 12, after Iran shot down a plane carrying the family of an employee. Notably, McCain posted his comment thread on Maple Leaf’s company account, blaming “the narcissist in Washington,” for the unintended consequences following President Trump’s order to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. McCain has joined the wave of CEOs speaking out about political issues, something that would have been unheard of half a generation ago, but recently, is being seen as something CEOs can and should do. The economic impact of his comments on the firm, one of Canada’s largest food companies, is yet to be seen, but the impact on Twitter is fairly clear — those liking his post outnumber negative commenters by about 10-1.
After apologizing and stepping down as CEO following revelations of abusive treatment of employees, Away luggage company leader Steph Korey told The New York Times on Jan. 12 that she is coming back as a co-CEO, and that she disputes the original story, published in The Verge, describing her behavior. Away board members told NYT columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin that “they feel as if they fell victim to management by a Twitter mob.” The Verge is standing by its story, and Korey is still acknowledging she had made mistakes, but errors that should not be “terminal.” Twitter “mob” aside, the pouncing already has begun, with one Forbes headline saying Korey’s return is “doomed to fail,” its essayist warning, “expect the culture to stay toxic.” This action could be somewhat of a watershed moment in determining how far customers’ influence on social media can go, and in how well organizations can deflect exposes. I’d keep an eye on what happens to the firm in light of this move. Away may have an issue attracting talent if culture doubts remain, and they feel that leaders don’t mean what they say.
The internal emails released about the ill-fated Boeing 737 Max show what happens when management culture is disconnected from employees on the front lines. And that such a disconnect can have horrific consequences. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was ousted in December, and last week, Boeing released internal messages about the 737, one of which saying that the plane was “designed by clowns.” On Jan. 10 it was announced that Muilenburg would receive no severance. In a recent article for TLNT.com, I wrote about how listening to your workers is the one of the most important things to do in order to make your culture disaster-ready. One significant point I made is to “make sure any risk management plan you have isn’t just from a consultant’s or your leaders’ point of view – do a safety and readiness check with your employees.” This is a lesson that Boeing’s leadership did not heed, and lives, reputation and revenue were lost as a result. To get back on track, Boeing must ensure it is allowing its front-line employees a clear channel to speak, and that Boeing will listen thoroughly and act on safety concerns employees raise.
–Sheridan Orr is VP of Marketing at CultureIQ