Gut Check: Would You Go Public To Air Your Company’s Dirty Laundry?

April 27, 2015 Vince Molinaro
Gut Check: Would You Go Public To Air Your Company’s Dirty Laundry?Earlier this month Donald Trump and T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere, got into what was described as a slugfest on social media.

It all began with Legere tweeting out a complaint about street musicians playing outside his room while he was staying at one of Trump’s hotels in New York City.

Trump immediately responded on Twitter by tweeting out that T-Mobile’s service is terrible. The public smackdown between the two grew from there.

While both are truly accomplished business leaders, when I came across this story I instinctively thought less of them.

Why did I react? Their behaviors seemed childlike and immature to me and not in keeping with how I believe senior leaders should behave.

But is this just the sign of things to come in the world of business? Will leaders simply choose any public forum to air their company’s dirty laundry or personal views of an internal squabble?

Take the recent example of Ferdinand Piech, the former chairman of Volkswagen. Piech had been nearly synonymous with VW over his career. A grandson of the inventor of the iconic VW Beetle, Piech had served for more than two decades as chief executive before becoming chair of the company’s steering committee. Over that time, he had become a larger-than-life character who could make or break careers with an off-handed public comment.

In fact, Piech experienced quite a lot of success undermining other VW executives through his public attacks.

Piech was at it again a few weeks ago when he tried to undermine Martin Winterkorn, VW’s CEO. He made a comment to a German business magazine that was clearly designed to force Winterkorn from his job.

Unfortunately, for Piech, this time he went one off-handed comment too far. He had every reason to believe that his comment would once again lead to a resignation. He just never thought it would be his own.

Rather than be intimidated by the public attack, Winterkorn held his ground, and Piech’s comment only served to galvanize opposition from the board and even employees.

The steering committee of the board voted 5-1 to stand behind their CEO. Piech was finally forced to resign his post which brought the public drama to an end.

This story raises several questions in my own mind. First, was Piech truly acting in the best interest of Volkswagen, its shareholders and employees? It’s hard to understand how. Second, did he ever consider how his actions would affect the reputation of the overall company? Whether he intended or not, VWs dirty laundry was aired for all to see. Not a great thing to happen to a person or a company.

It seems based on this story there is a lesson here for leaders. Pushing a personal agenda or airing your company’s dirty laundry in public can be risky business. You never know how the chips will fall once you have put them in play.

This week’s leadership gut check asks: would you go public to air your company’s dirty laundry?


About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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