Before I worked in business, I often noticed how careful CEOs were with their words. It made me nauseous. They reminded me of all the goodie-two-shoes back in elementary school who brought the teacher apples and worried about losing points on their test.
It wasn’t until I worked in corporate for a few years, made a bunch of gaffes, and learned to swallow my tongue that I realized how much my words matter. The margin for error grows thinner as you move up and gain more power.
Look at politicians. If a president so much as miswords one sentence, the opposing news station runs with it for weeks, citing how it reveals his true intentions or how he’s incompetent in some light. History is also littered with cautionary tales of CEOs making terrible mistakes. These mistakes serve as a reminder to be mindful of your words. They matter.
BP’s big blunder
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Eleven workers were instantly killed, with several bodies never found. In addition, 17 workers were badly injured and are still impacted to this day.
The scene was horrific as hundreds of millions of gallons of oil poured into the Gulf. Nearly three months later, they got the leak mostly contained. But the damage was lasting, and the suffering was unimaginable. Images of animals being covered in oil and struggling to breathe frequented the news. Here in Tampa, Florida, we still get pamphlets from BP about the spill cleanup.
One can sympathize with how difficult the CEO’s job must have been during this tenure.
But CEO Tony Hayward committed a massive blunder. After months of constant media coverage and horrible images of the damage, Tony said, “Nobody wants this to be over more than me. I want my life back.”
Essentially, he made the entire disaster about his own quality of life and how he’d been the one who had it rough. It didn’t help that he also took a long yachting trip while oil was still leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. He was sunbathing while other people were trying desperately to stop a leak.
Though it was unlikely his career at BP would survive this disaster, he hastened his exit. He would step down from his position shortly after that.
Abercrombie on thin ice
Abercrombie’s CEO, Mike Jeffries, faced a wave of criticism for some of his hiring practices. He encouraged hiring white employees only and formed rules against having dreadlocks or other urban looks.
During interviews, he made the situation even worse by saying he “doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people.”
It was a curious thing to say as, objectively, he probably didn’t fit into either of those categories. Would he be allowed to shop there?
Jeffries managed to endure as CEO at Abercrombie despite a continuation of bad press and declining sales. He was eventually forced to step down in 2014 after the company reported declining sales for 13 consecutive quarters. Share prices increased by 8% just after the announcement was made, signaling how people actually felt about the man.
The layoff meeting from hell
There has been a slew of major slip-ups from leaders during zoom calls, including mass layoffs that lacked civility.
Better.com’s CEO, Vishal Garg, held a meeting where he laid off 900 employees all at once.
The CEO said a number of sloppy things during the meeting, even signaling to new hires that they would be fired if they didn’t perform.
He also said:
Today we acknowledge that we over hired, and hired the wrong people. And in doing that we failed. I failed. I was not disciplined over the past 18 months. We made $250 million last year, and you know what, we probably pissed away $200 million. We probably could have made more money last year and been leaner, meaner and hungrier.
Garg has developed a reputation for being supremely arrogant, as have many of the other managers at the company. The only reason he hasn’t been fired is likely because he’s the founder.
A bad turn of the tongue
I personally witnessed another minor gaffe a few years back. Our trucking company was beginning a multi-round series of layoffs, and a wave of people had just been let go. We started at 6,000 people and would be whittled down to 2,800 by the end of it.
Our CEO was standing up in front of the group, talking in a very coy and measured manner about the state of the company. Earlier that year, our CEO, CFO, and COO had all been paid multi-million dollar bonuses (which were reported in the paper).
There was a coordinator from another department. I didn’t know her. But she raised her hand and said, “I have a question. Why is it OK for you to get million-dollar bonuses while we’re all being laid off?”
I don’t know if it was the wisest thing to say, but I admired her directness and courage.
The CEO grimaced, and his face turned red, clearly angry. His response? “Well, because I write the checks.”
It was a hugely insensitive response, making him look like an arrogant jerk to the entire company. He left by the end of the year as well. Sadly, the woman who asked the question was gone by the next morning.
Be mindful—your words matter
From all that I’ve seen and experienced, it pays to keep your mouth shut and be very careful as you climb the corporate ladder. Yet, when some people get to the top, they get too comfortable with their power and position. They gradually start being a bit too honest about how they really feel. And that’s how things can often backfire.
Such examples remind us that some things should be left unsaid. Otherwise, you risk upsetting and losing good people. And you’ll end up facing the consequences. Your reputation, personal and professional, is at stake.
Be very mindful of what you say. Your words matter more than you think.