Monday, July 30, 2007

Is Sorry a Strategy

Robyn Greenspan is our Senior Editor who among the many things she does is the engine that drives our Executive Insider newsletter, a complimentary publication on senior executive career related issues which is published every two weeks via email.

In the edition that hit my desktop today, Robyn's Letter from the Editor immmediately caught my attention. First because I so much admire the way she writes, but also because of the subject matter which had to do with executive leadership or lack thereof, and readers of this blog will know that this is a subject on which I have focused a good deal such as:

The Qualities of a Successful Leader/Manager

Visting Day Leadership

Things to Think About on the Way Home

The Price of Leadership
I know there are lots of folks who, like myself, look forward to getting the Insider every two weeks. Indeed, the number is deep into six figures at this point, but there are also lots of folks who may not have seen it, and I could not help myself from sharing Robyn's letter in this issue.

Is Sorry a Strategy?

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is the latest apologist for his role as an anonymous Internet user who posted negative messages about competitor Wild Oats on financial stock forums. It may seem like a MySpace prank at first — an impulsive action from a high schooler who didn't get a prom date — but Mackey routinely posted on these message boards for eight years.

Mackey's actions were certainly opaque, and his apology seems to represent transparency. But with a recent wave of public "sorries" from visible figures — Paris Hilton, David Neeleman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson and a growing list of politicians — these megawatt mea culpas may no longer suffice. In many cases, the apology seems less about reprehensible actions and more about "I'm sorry I got caught."

While the antics of drunken celebrities, corrupt politicians and greedy corporate executives (Enron, Tyco, etc.) may not surprise us — and may sometimes be expected — Mackey's actions are more disappointing. Whole Foods, like Neeleman's JetBlue, are supposed to be the good guys — socially conscious, friendly, customer-centric companies that care about their employees, the earth and doing what's right.

They both issued very public apologies, but Neeleman's and Mackey's downfalls are decidedly different. The former faced a customer service debacle while the latter deliberately deceived stakeholders; Neeleman absorbed the blame for issues where he may not have been directly responsible and Mackey's consistently poor judgment put his company and — especially its brand — in jeopardy. There are many lessons in Mackey's story: the myth of Internet anonymity, the economic influence of user-generated content, managing bad PR and repairing brand reputation, the psychology of forgiveness, etc. But the most important is about the interrelationship between leadership and trust.
The "learnings" she draws from the likes of Messrs. Mackey and Neeleman among others should serve as reminders to any businessperson large or small.

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