How should you say – or should you say – I Quit

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How should you say – or should you say – I Quit

Friends,

Smith’s first name is Greg.  He spent 12 years at Goldman Sachs, where he says he “had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia.”  He was a big deal.  And on Wednesday he quit Goldman, the way lots of us have wanted to quit one job or another, with a blazing op-ed in the New York Times that said his firm environment was “as toxic and destructive” as he had ever seen it.  Smith lashed out at Goldman’s obsession with its own profits which he says were habitually becoming more important than their clients’ interests (clients, some Goldman advisors referred to derisively as “Muppets”).

The Times used the article to launch eight mini-op-eds the next day (including two by my colleagues at Berkeley) on the topic “does morality have a place on Wall Street.”  Volleys and counter-volleys have been flying for five days in every imaginable media outlet.  The deep substantive questions about Wall Street and Goldman  are beyond the humble scope of RFL.

But what about tossing the bomb on the way out the door?  Is Smith a courageous hero crying out for core values to sustain good business and a moral life?  And/or: is he disgruntled (because he hadn’t risen higher)? And/or: is he just plain arrogant? (In an op-ed about his company he mentions his Rhodes Scholarship (just) once, and his MBA from Stanford twice.)

I guess I’ve tipped my hand.  I’ve got my doubts about Smith’s approach.  Maybe my law school buddy’s dad was right when he told his 4 sons, “sometimes you just gotta bop a guy.”  Maybe Goldman just got their comeuppance. The guy clearly spoke some truth to power.

What bothered me was what Smith didn’t say:  Not a single mention of a time when he saw bad business practice and did something about it. Was there no partner with whom he shared his moral indignation?  No incident he’d like to recount where he stood for the Goldman values that he now tells us are in decline?  No counsel he gave the young interns so that they could be proud as he once was? No sense of how things might change from within?

Our world has some bad guys and some institutions that have soured and spoiled.  Yup.  But there are also good people and good values in almost all those institutions.  I know I’d like to “toss some bombs” at the Catholic hierarchy, the Republicans and my beloved Democrats, too.  I’ve wanted to scream at Chase Bank (I kept my voice calm and finally moved my money to the credit union) and Comerica Bank when they left the Detroit to which they owed their existence.  But these big complex institutions have mixed motives – as they try to survive and to thrive, to do well and figure out what it means to do good.

I’m just not sure where bomb-throwing gets us.  Our country has some really hard decisions in front of us.  It’s hard to police the world, cut the deficit, protect social security and cut taxes – all at once.  I’m in favor of courage – and Greg Smith certainly took some risks with his moral vendetta – but I’m also in favor of the courage of engagement – everyday, every day leadership.

What do YOU think?  And more importantly, what do you do?  Tell us about your bomb-throwing and/or your daily wrestling with the big guys.  How’s it working for you to

Lead with your best self?

Dan

p.s. Thanks for all the folks who offered to take my $50.  We randomly picked 10 winners and look forward to hearing what they do.  Eager to hear what you do – even if you didn’t win the fifty.

11 responses to “How should you say – or should you say – I Quit

  1. I think you’re maybe off-base on this one, buddy, at least on the potential criticisms of the bomb throwing exit taker. You could use that argument on whistle blowers, too, and how about people that voice criticism in totalitarian regimes? Sometimes integrity demands that you tell it like it is, in public, not just to yourself and your close friends. I think the letter was well written and didn’t overstep the bounds of propriety and decency. The same goes for the letter from the Google engineer who wrote an out-the-door letter in a similar vein. Burn those bridges and power to the people who dare.

  2. You have to be willing to take risks while still on the job if you sincerely want to make a better organization. A number of years ago my company brought on a new CEO out of retirement. After a couple of months I went to his office and closed the door saying ‘We have to have a difficult conversation.” I asked him if the Board had told him about the company President, and he replied “No”. I said “shame on them”. I told him that the President was very lazy, a womanizer and that while he was “traveling on business” he was actually hiding so the CEO wouldn’t see him doing nothing. The CEO asked “What do you think we should do?” I said “He needs to be fired, because he’ll never change”. He asked “How do we do it?” I said “I’ll take care of it”. I contacted an attorney, had a draft severance agreement perpared and we made the change. The real challenge for me was that the President and my boss (the CFO) were best friends so my boss couldn’t know about it. My boss was furious when he found out what had happened but he never said a word to me. This is the type of risk I’ve always felt I had to face as an H.R. VP, but I’ve never regretted it..

  3. I faced a similar situation 8 years ago when I “retired” after 25 years working for the local newspaper. When I left I swallowed hard and left my frustrations behind – in silence. One reason for my retirement was that I felt alone in the bureaucracy – I felt my boss, the G.M., no longer had faith in my ability to do the job, and there really was no one else to talk with. So I left – in silence. 8 years later I believe I did the right thing – I know I did the right thing. I can appreciate Greg’s frustration. However, burning bridges behind you when you leave has consequences beyond what one can see today. Silence IS golden!

  4. Dear Dan, thank you for your always thought provoking Monday missals. I have been working within an international church organization fr 30 years and a denominations region for 15. I have run the gamut from ranting and raving and throwing bombs to finally learning to be compassionate, more diplomatic and constructive, including offering to do work to help shift the system.

    I have learned that once I have had my say, I have to let go of the immediate outcome and support the best effort the system can make at the time. Over time, change does occur.

    Hard for a civil-rights/feminist picketer baby boomer! But the longer I hang in there and stay connected, the more I feel heard and the more impact I have.

    AND, I love the loud-mouths who scream revolution (like I used to)! They make me look so moderate, my ideas so doable!

  5. I actually wouldn’t of been able to take the $50 because I couldn’t take money from a friend which is what I think of you as well as your wife as friends.

    As for tossing the bomb on the way out the door. I know a perfect McDonalds I would of loved doing that to. How would you like to work at a place for years when a new store manager comes there and takes you into the basement everyday and yells at you and would always threaten to fire you for no reason. He slams the basement door shut going into the basement. For years you couldn’t even handle the slamming of a door. Even the owner wouldn’t do anything about it. You were the fastest in the store, nicknamed Speedy Gonzales and you knew how to do everything. You always went in for them when they needed help and never called in though you were even working another full time job as well. Being stressed out at working at a little place like McDonalds. Yeah I wished I thought about throwing a bomb walking out the door for the last time 23 years ago. 2 bombs would of been better of course.

  6. Dan, love reading your weekly message.
    I was having this same conversation with some friends over the weekend. We all work in various industries. A key to corporate undoing seems to be the short-term thinking that goes into planning one’s goals, even a company’s goals. Remember when a long-term plan was 20 years? Now a long-term plan is about 5 years. Short term plans used to be six months to two years – now they’re 30 to 180 days. When individuals are encouraged to prove their value and influence based on short term success, they forego strategic planning and opt for short term success tactics that give the illusion of being able to achieve longer-term sustainable results. Companies do the same thing when they’re motivated by governing boards that think short-term. Too often the “What will make me (or us) look good NOW and help us make it through the next round of cutbacks?” might be an unspoken motto.

  7. In “Giving Voice to Values,” author Mary C. Gentile asks, “Is there free will in business?”

    If you don’t believe there is “free will” where you conduct business, you will have little control over your workplace actions. A good example of a corporate meme expressed during the financial crisis (even as the subprime crisis worsened) by Charles Prince, former CEO of Citigroup: “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,” he said. “We’re still dancing.”

    The financial crisis, the BP oil spill, the collapse of Enron etc. were caused not by just a few people who did things that were wrong, but by the thousands of people working with them who didn’t stand up for what they believed was right.

    The way we think is conditioned by our life experiences. If we’ve spent our life in a classroom, we tend to think as a student or teacher. If we’ve spent our work life as an employee, we tend to think as an employee. For example, many new entrepreneurs talk-the-talk of the entrepreneur — but their thinking is still grounded in their life as an employee. This can be deadly to their goals and aspirations.

    Author Mary C. Gentile has spent a great deal of her life in the classrooms of Harvard Business School and Babson College and from reading her book it seems that she thinks if her students know what ethical decision-making is, they will take action on what they think is right. However, in the Ask-Know-Do progression there is a huge gap between Know and Do. Especially, when corporate memes put pressure on employees to do as they are told rather than follow the path that they know is in the right direction.

  8. It is hard to judge Greg Smith from the outside of Goldman. In many employment situations there is no freedom to express differences. Authority is made superior to reason. Greg Smith may have seen bad things happen to those who to any extent questioned what was going on at Goldman. If Goldman is as bad as he says, then he is taking a risk by speaking out on his exit. This may have been the only realistic way for him to do something about the situation and stay employed. I have know employers who no employee questioned in any way, because they feared being fired, and feared being black-balled. It would be nice if at every company we could lead up and lead down. But now what happens at Goldman? Anything?

  9. It’s one thing to WANT to do what’s right; it’s quite another to be ABLE to do what’s right in a corporate culture that mandates doing things that are wrong. Take it from me; I know! One can only work so far and so hard within a corporate culture to change it. If the powers-that-be recognize that you’re not singing their “Make me rich and to heck with the customers and the stockholders” song, then you’re done. There’s nothing you can do but leave since eventually, they’ll find a way to fire you. Not just not promote you, despite your qualifications, but with palms planted firmly against their ears, refusing to hear anything, everything you have to say. I’m glad when it works otherwise. I wish it were always possible to change a corporate culture from within. it’s certainly worthwhile to try.

    Think of Jesus of Nazareth–preaching to the poor people on the hillside and on the plain. Encouraging all to forgive debts. Eating with Pharisees. Meeting after dark with their leader, Nicodemus. Trying to help them understand that what they were doing was wrong. Jesus was an “insider” in the sense that he was born and lived the life of an observant Jewish rabbi. Eventually, he felt called to show the temple leaders just how bad and wrong their get-rich-quick schemes were: he turned over those tables of the money changers and drove the livestock out of the temple. This was his own version of throwing a bomb, though he knew they’d crucify him for it, and sure enough, they did.

    Sometimes, when actions become so evidently egregious, a person has to throw a bomb… even though you get crucified for it.

    It’s said that renowned corporate coach Peter Drucker is the author of the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you Google it, you’ll find a GREAT graphic. A large arrow shows the publicly-declared mission going in one direction. The large arrow is composed of many smaller arrows going in the opposite direction. If you’re not going in the same direction as colleagues, you’re swimming upstream and eventually getting pushed downstream. If you are an ethical person, why would you allow that to happen? Best to leave and speak truth to those with ears to hear, since power wasn’t listening… Brilliant and courageous! (…but mostly thankless and in this case, unappreciated by someone who aims to encourage everyday leadership.)

    Fortunately, in Jesus’ case, while they crucified him, they could not kill the ideas he promoted, which survive today in some corners of the world, although evidently not on Wall Street.

    This is a topic worth talking about so thanks for raising it even though we seem to disagree.

  10. Dan,

    I would have dropped the bomb! I am so sick and tired of people being told to be politically correct! WHY? (The only purpose being politically correct serves is if you are looking for another job!) WHAT IS SO WRONG WITH TELLING THE TRUTH?

    IT IS WHAT IT IS!!! We follow the rules of the company, we do what we are told even if we are philosopically against it. (After all, we have to feed our families don’t we?)

    Sometimes you just have to call it as it is! In this world being a Manager is tough! But we all know that even if we hold the title “Manager”, we seldom have the ability to determine the policy we just adminster the policy!

    I admire this guy! The only problem with dropping the bomb is that sometimes we end up being the sacrificial lamb. We never know where the fallout particles will end up.

    BUT THE TRUTH IS THE TRUTH!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH SPEAKING THE TRUTH?

    How many times have those of us who are “Managers” done what we were instructed to do even though we hated it? Do we go to hell for not having an uprising? Or do we do our jobs, collect our pensions and move on!

    Managers are often victims themselves; victims of a system they do not and cannot control!! Can you walk away? Sometimes. Will you be penalized for telling the TRUTH when it hurts the company? ALWAYS!!

    ~The TIP Lady

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