The saying “The buck stops here” has certainly taken on new meaning in an era of enormous executive pay. But in focusing in this case on a pair of CEO’s, let’s not overlook the fate of their less-well compensated employees and abused customers.
Two companies stand as cautionary tales. The first is Wells Fargo, with its brand image of a stage coach heralding the San Francisco-based bank’s heritage in the Wild West. The other is the ride-sharing service Uber, also based in the Bay area, a start-up already valued at nearly $70 billion. While Wells Fargo and Uber represent the old versus the new economy and are in different sectors, ultimately they share one problem in common: newly departed leaders that have run roughshod over others.
The founder and now former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, has gotten more media ink, making him the juicer target to start with. Should the company’s backers have known there was going to be trouble before it erupted into public view? Absolutely, if an emotional read of Kalanick’s temperament has any bearing. I’ve facially coded dozens of company leaders and Kalanick is way out of the normal range on a key barometer: anger. That emotion constitutes nearly half of Kalanick’s emoting – a level I’ve seen in only one other executive, Mark Parker of Nike, who has the saving grace of also showing three times more sadness as Kalanick. (By the way, in 2015 Parker was named Businessperson of the Year by Fortune magazine.)
What makes anger so dangerous, and why might sadness be an offsetting benefit (at least in Parker’s case)? In the now infamous Uber ride caught on camera on Super Bowl Sunday earlier this year, Kalanick is heard telling one of his fellow passengers regarding Uber’s corporate culture and future goals: “If it’s easy, I’m not pushing hard enough.” Anger can be about assertiveness and trying to take control of your circumstances in order to make progress, as befits any entrepreneur like Kalanick. But excessive anger brings us back to the underlying reality that anger causes people to hit out or even demolish whatever presents itself as a barrier to progress and control.
Sometimes that “barrier” was the few women at Uber, generally ignored, except when being sexually harassed in one of Silicon Valley’s ultimate “bro culture” firms. Sometimes it was the regulators that Uber was seeking to hoodwink and bully. Sometimes it might have even been Google, whose driverless car designs Uber may have pilfered illegally. In contrast, the offsetting advantage of sadness is that it is often an empathetic, caring emotion. Paired with anger, sadness can soften anger’s rough edges. Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes and helps us ponder the consequences of our actions.
Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes
“Bullshit,” says Kalanick on that Super Bowl evening to the driver who complains that changes in Uber’s business model have devastated him financially. Now leaning forward inside the car to refute and berate the driver, Kalanick comes out of the shadows and is clearly angry. His lips are compressed, and they stay tight as he calls the driver one of those people who “blame everything in their life on somebody else.” The driver’s retort, as Kalanick leaves the car in a huff, is to tell him: “I know you won’t go far.” How prophetic that remark proved to be given Kalanick’s recent, forced resignation!
The Wells Fargo situation was another mess long in the making. As it turns out, for up to half a decade the company’s very modestly paid tellers and other employees were being told to pursue a total of eight separate accounts per household. Why such a high standard for cross-selling, when the industry average was maybe half of that? “Eight rhymes with great” was always the answer of the now-departed CEO John Stumpf. Forged signatures, stolen social security numbers: those were among the tactics that beleaguered employees resorted to, hoping to fulfill their inflated, arbitrary, cross-selling quotas. And in instances where they didn’t get there, over 5,000 “team members” were terminated.
A couple of years ago, Stumpf was caught on camera talking about how “You can’t teach caring.” I guess Stumpf was right, at least in his own case. When he next was memorable on camera it was to testify before Congress this past September, with a hand conspicuously bandaged because apparently he hurt it the weekend before “playing with his grandchildren.” Really, that was the cause? I’d lay 5 to 1 odds on that excuse as opposed to actually slamming his hand into a wall, or something else, while boiling over with anger knowing his goose was cooked.
Before Congress, Stumpf was his usual self. His right eyebrow raised repeatedly in a clear sign of fear, accompanied by eyes wide open and a mouth that pulled wide. Is fear endemic to Stumpf’s personality? Or does all that fearful emoting, over the years, reflect the emotional toll of enforcing results by whatever means necessary? Who wouldn’t be uneasy when you’re being asked for the number of senior leaders at Wells Fargo who got fired for the cross-selling fraud, and the answer is exactly zero? It must be hard to talk about “deepening relationships” with customers when actually cross-selling is all you mean. Moreover, an uneasy Stumpf must have known the mess he ended up leaving his former colleagues at the bank.
Always look for the repeat patterns in people’s behavior. They tell the truth more than words ever will. The latest news involving Wells Fargo is a lawsuit accusing the bank of making improper changes to people’s mortgages, changes that would extend the loans for decades, changes that would net the bank far more in earnings over the course of the elongated loans. What was that sanctimonious observation, again? Oh, yeah: “You can’t teach caring.” What Stumpf was actually good at was selling off $13 million worth of Wells Fargo stock just prior to heading to Washington, D.C. to dodge the bad news as best he could.