How I Kept My Dignity and My Job When Our Billionaire CEO Screamed at Me
A high-flying technology company acquired a corporation I used to work for in the early 2000s. As the top corporate communications executive for the acquired firm, I had dual-reporting into our former CEO (who was demoted to a regional role) as well as the high-profile billionaire CEO of the acquiring company.
Several months after the deal closed I received a request from a reporter at a national daily newspaper who wanted to do a follow-up story on the integration that included an interview with our "rock star" CEO. I had briefed our top exec on the potential upside and downside of the interview.
He agreed to participate because he liked the limelight and had only received glowing profiles to that point in time.
The story ran a few weeks later. While it was balanced and fair, the reporter included a few anonymous quotes from "former employees" which characterized the new boss as an arrogant blowhard who lacked the operational gravitas to successfully deliver sustained results.
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Within moments of reading the story myself that morning, my gut tightened as I was summoned to his corner office. Walking down the hallway, I heard him raging and swearing loudly before I entered, yet somehow he still managed to dial it up when he saw me. As I approached his massive desk, he folded the entire newspaper and flung it at my head along with some choice cursings.
I literally had to duck as he pointed his finger and blamed me for this perceived public besmirchment to his sterling reputation.
Here are the three things I did in that moment to survive his withering diatribe and keep my job.
1. I stayed calm.
This was the first time I had ever been berated by someone with such a disproportionate delta of power and wealth. In the moment, it felt like I was being verbally eviscerated by a king or ruler. Instantly recognizing the precarious nature of my professional situation, an ancient proverb came to mind that goes, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1, NIV)
I wasn't interested in stirring up anymore anger so I calmly began addressing and answering his questions, in a quiet and even tone, with a measured pace. I stopped speaking every time he interrupted and agreed with his every point.
After two or three minutes of my Zen-like responses, he had calmed down and we began to have a conversation.
2. I stood my ground.
Prior to this corporate communications position, I had been a print and broadcast journalist for more than a decade. I was the only employee of our 8,000-person workforce who had ever worked in a newsroom. I was the subject matter expert when it came to media relations.
As such, another nugget of wisdom sprang to mind, "If a ruler's anger rises against you, do not leave your post..." (Ecclesiastes 10:4, NIV)
I had firsthand knowledge of how the media worked and gently -- but with the authority and conviction from 10 years experience -- reminded him that no one controls the media message and we discussed those risks prior to the interview.
I calmly but directly asserted, that if we wanted total control over the message we needed to create and place advertisements -- which was sub-optimal -- rather than rely on straight editorial opportunities. As a public company, we had to pursue both earned and paid opportunities.
He grudgingly nodded in agreement.
I then stressed that we can't write the articles for the media, we can only provide (or limit) access---which we had agreed to do.
The nodding continued.
Lastly, I also pointed out that this was not an ambush piece. Roughly 90 percent of the article was favorable and included a few sentences regarding the CEO's personal philanthropy to several charities, which helped neutralize the negative unnamed quotes.
3. I gave solutions.
Once the immediate situation was defused and he had given full vent of his anger, there was another ancient saying I thought of, "Don't curse the darkness, light a candle."
So I immediately began laying out a tactical impromptu response that included: questioning the reporter for using anonymous former employees and how their employment was confirmed (e.g.. pay stubs, termination letter...etc.); draft a letter to the editor if in fact they were not actual employees; while subsequently pitching profile pieces of the CEO to local/regional/trade media outlets to further assuage his ego.
I had no idea how any of those tactics would play out but it gave the CEO confidence that we had a plan of action, while ensuring I continued having a job.
It ultimately turned out that the reporter had only spoken to a former vendor whose contract was not renewed and two temporary contractors who had been on long-term assignment---no actual employees had been interviewed. While the publication did not run a correction to its story, it did run our letter to the editor asserting the need for fact-checking and journalistic rigor.
Lastly, the CEO had two cover features that ran in a regional business journal and a respected trade publication. I had both matted and framed for his office.
I worked for that company for another two years before I decided to pursue other options. The framed articles were still hanging on his wall the day I left.