I used to tell people you have to work in the technology industry to understand just how dysfunctional it is. Not anymore. Smartphones, YouTube and Twitter have changed all that. Now every dumb CEO move is recorded, leaked, posted, and retweeted all over planet Earth. And nothing’s off limits.
Last week AOL (AOL) chief executive Tim Armstrong fired Abel Lenz, the creative director of Patch Media, a company founded by Armstrong and acquired by AOL right after he took the reins at the troubled online media company.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. So what? People get fired every day. What’s the big deal?
Well, to say this was an unusual way to fire someone is quite an understatement.
When Ray Bostock picked up the phone and fired his CEO at Yahoo (YHOO), Carol Bartz, that was unusual. I mean, what chairman of the board calls the person he once loved for the job and says, “You’re fired. Have a nice life.” Okay, I doubt if he said that. But still. It’s sort of cold, don’t you think?
On the other hand, that may have been fitting for the famously fierce and feisty Bartz who never minced words or suffered fools and was once quoted as saying, “I always do my firing in the morning because that's when I'm fresh. I mean, why sit there all day thinking: I'm going to fire Joe at 4:59?"
So, while that wasn’t exactly a typical way to fire an executive, Bartz was anything but a typical CEO. I guess “she who lives by the sword will die by the sword” applies.
What happened at AOL, on the other hand, is way more bizarre and troubling than that. I mean, if planet Earth is “bizarre” and Mars is “troubling,” this isn’t even in the same solar system. It’s light years away in a whole different galaxy. That’s how “unusual” it is.
Here’s what happened:
Thursday of last week, news broke that Patch, an underperforming unit that had been a drag on AOL’s results for some time, was going to get a major haircut. That’s code for hundreds of local Patch websites being axed, along with hundreds of Patch employees.
So Armstrong held an all-hands conference call with about a thousand Patch folks on Friday, presumably to explain the situation and hopefully rally the troops. Well, that’s not exactly how it went down. Here’s an excerpt of the first few minutes of the call, which I understand went on for another hour and 40 minutes.
The weirdness occurs around the two-minute mark, so be patient. Now that I think about it, if you happen to have a heart, you may just want to read it instead. It’s a lot less shocking, sort of like reading about Darth Vader breaking that storm trooper’s neck in Star Wars instead of hearing his blood-curdling voice and the actual bones crunching.
Sorry, got a little carried away there. Anyway, here are the relevant excerpts of what Armstrong said. The uncalled-for comments in brackets are mine:
“There’s a couple of things I want you guys to realize and really think about and sink in, and if it doesn’t sink in and you don’t believe what I’m about to say, I’m going to ask you to leave Patch. And I don’t mean that in a harsh way …”
[Really? Umm … in what way did you mean it, then?]
“If you think what’s going on right now is a joke, and you want to joke around about it, you should pick your stuff up and leave Patch today, …”
[I guess he didn’t mean that in a harsh way either.]
“… and the reason is, and I’m going to be very specific about this, is Patch from an experience — Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired. Out!”
Yup, that was it. He really did can the guy. Right there, right then, just like that, in front of a thousand of his fellow employees, at least virtually.
To be fair, Armstrong did issue an apology, both to Lenz and to all AOL employees. But I hear Lenz is still fired. And you’ve got to wonder, would Armstrong have apologized if someone hadn’t leaked the audio to the media?
I know what I think, but then, having been fired by more than one high-tech CEO – yes, it was humiliating – I’m probably more than a little cynical about this sort of thing.
So, what do you think?
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.