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After the ax: 3 CEOs see the light

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in Leaders & Managers

Here’s how three star bosses reflect on their falls.

1. Jim Donald, a grocery executive who spent three years building Walmart’s supercenters and two smooth years as Starbucks’ CEO, describes a Sunday meeting at the home of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who hugged him and told him the board had decided to fire him and reinstate Schultz.

Donald’s wife commented on the short meeting and asked if he’d lost his job. The next morning, he broke the news to his mom. Then he went for a long row by himself.

“Probably the toughest day I’ve ever faced, ever. Ever, ever, ever!” he says, but also notes that he wasn’t in shock. “This is what happens in the big leagues.”

On reflection, Donald thinks his worst decision was not investing earlier overseas.

2. Ed Zander rose from No. 2 at Sun Microsystems to CEO of Motorola. Under his watch, the RAZR became the best-selling cell phone in history, and then … nothing. The next mobile phone wasn’t ready, and if you don’t have the product, you pay the price … and get canned.

In hindsight, Zander thinks he needed to replace some people faster.

3. David Neeleman was a hotshot entrepreneur who founded the airline JetBlue but mishandled customers during a 2007 ice storm. When the bad taste of that failure lingered for months, the board of directors let him go.

Now, as a board member himself, Neeleman realizes that directors have to look at the company “through this little hole once a quarter.” Back then he thought he didn’t have time to keep them informed, but if things went sour today, he would increase communication.

“If you don’t, somebody else will,” he says. “You have to be able to give them an accurate picture of what’s going on, or they develop their own perceptions and start creating their own stories. And then they make their decisions.”

— Adapted from “Lessons of the Fall: Ex-CEOs from JetBlue, Starbucks, and Motorola discuss what they learned when they lost their jobs,” Patricia Sellers, Fortune.

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