It was very surprising to hear the CEO of IBM publically criticize the IBM Sales organization for being too slow as she discussed recent disappointing quarterly financial results, and most importantly, a -17% decline in hardware revenue versus year ago. It was the first miss versus guidance in 8 years for the technology behemoth. Her public admonishment was quickly followed by removing the leader of the hardware division. It is very rare to see such a public chastisement, and led to the industry press being filled with comments about the appropriateness of her moves.
This incident reminds me of an old Vince Lombardi story. Back in 1960 this legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers stopped practice and exploded in an expletive-laced tirade directed at Bart Starr, the young Packer quarterback. Starr later went to Lombardi’s office to settle a few things. He accepted responsibility for his mistakes but told Lombardi “You expect me to be the leader of this team. I want to be the best leader I can be, but I can’t do that if you’re chewing me out in front of the team I am supposed to lead…Now I can take any chewing out you want to deliver, but all I ask is that you do it in the privacy of your office….I will be an even better leader for you if you do that.” It is said that Lombardi never criticized Starr in front of the team again, and Packers led by Starr became the most famous NFL dynasty ever.
Here are my views on this topic of public criticism:
1.) If You Are the Leader, You Take the Blame – My view is the CEO of IBM should have assume personal responsibility for the business softness and then gone back to the troops and properly analyzed the problems and fixed them. Yes, the hardware group underperformed, so learn what is going on (which should have been done well before the crisis) and apply the necessary fixes.
2.) Privately Deal the Poor Performance of Leaders Reporting to You – Bart Starr was right; public admonishment causes the troops to view the person as somewhat damaged goods. This leads others to believe that person is having problems and probably not capable of leading in the right direction.
3.) If Firing Someone, Allow the Person to Leave with Dignity – Publically assigning the person to a specific special assignment reporting to you, while privately they look for a new job outside the company, is a good way to do this. While people will speculate what is probably going, it enables the person to hold his or her head high while coping with the situation.
Obviously, I am a strong believer in the old adage: Praise Publically; Criticize Privately!