Sunday, February 25

Year in review: 2023’s top CEO mishaps and misadventures

Another year, another endless news cycle driven by the world’s top corporate executives, with moments ranging from cringe-worthy to downright bizarre.

While some CEOs seemed to relish the spotlight, Elon Musk (picture) chief among them, others were inadvertently thrust into social media’s harsh glare.

Here are some of the most high-profile management misadventures:

The Muskiest moment

Of all the jaw-dropping Musk moments this year, the pinnacle came on stage at the New York Times DealBook Summit when he told advertisers that have stopped spending on X to go “f—” themselves. “Hey Bob, if you’re in the audience” he added, calling out Bob Iger, the CEO of Walt Disney Co. — one company among many that distanced itself after Musk endorsed an antisemitic post in November.

Still, if advertisers leave X, the platform’s failure will be their fault, not his, Musk said, calling their retreat a form of blackmail. He said he won’t “tap dance” to prove he’s trustworthy.

Billionaire cage match bluff

In June, Musk challenged Mark Zuckerberg to what perhaps passes for a duel in 2023, posting on X: “I’m up for a cage match if he is lol.” The peculiar invitation came shortly after news surfaced that Meta Platforms Inc. was set to release Threads as a competitor to X.

Zuckerberg, who practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, readily agreed. Musk advertised a showdown in Vegas in August, and then started a rumor it might actually be staged in the Colosseum in Rome, which Italy’s culture minister promptly debunked. But Musk began making excuses as the summer weeks slid by, saying he might need surgery for his neck/back/shoulder. Zuckerberg eventually called his bluff, saying it was “time to move on.”

OpenAI’s about-face

The abrupt firing and rehiring of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman by the board played out over the course of a long weekend. The whole thing was pretty bizarre, with some of the drama unfolding on social media. Between angry investors and employees, virtually all of whom threatened to quit, the board beat a hasty retreat.

As rumors swirled that he might return, Altman posted a photo of himself at the San Francisco office wearing a guest badge: “first and last time i ever wear one of these.” In an especially strange twist, one of the ouster’s leaders, OpenAI co-founder and Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, later recanted and pledged to “do everything” he could to reunite the company. Altman replied with three red hearts.

The view from Acapulco

When Stellantis NV and UAW leadership met in August, Mark Stewart, the company’s chief operating officer for North America wasn’t physically present — he Zoomed in from Acapulco, Mexico, where he has a second home. That didn’t go over well with workers who resented the executive’s calls for employees to temper bargaining demands in the name of economic realism.

The UAW’s deft new communications team — which includes veterans of Senator Bernie Sanders’ runs for the Democratic nomination for president — seized on the faux pas. Pro-union social media accounts later spread footage and photos of a sunglasses-wearing Stewart smiling by the beach. He made it to the next meeting in person.

Leave “pity city” behind

A short video of office furniture maker MillerKnoll Inc. CEO Andi Owen chastising staff for fixating on end-of-year bonuses ricocheted around the internet in April. “Spend your time and your effort thinking about the $26 million we need, and not thinking about what are you going to do if you don’t get a bonus,” Owen said in the video, referring to an internal metric. “I had an old boss who said to me one time, ‘You can visit pity city, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave pity city.”

Owen sent an email to staff and met with leaders across the company after the backlash, according to a person familiar with the situation. “Andi fiercely believes in this team and all we can accomplish together, and will not be dissuaded by a 90-second clip taken out of context and posted on social media,” MillerKnoll spokesperson Kris Marubio said in an emailed statement.

Management’s massage time

In October, Tony Fernandes, co-founder of AirAsia and a top executive there, went to LinkedIn to post a picture of himself, shirtless, getting a massage while sitting at a conference room table. “Got to love Indonesia and AirAsia culture that I can have a massage and do a management meeting,” he wrote. Online followers quickly spoke out, with some commentators calling it inappropriate for an executive to indulge in bare-chested personal care while also purportedly running the company. One person said she didn’t think women at his company “would be comfortable or safe in this context, and given you’re the boss, they likely won’t challenge you or say anything.”

Fernandes said he’d just endured an 18-hour flight and was in pain, and that the massage was a spontaneous suggestion by somebody in the Indonesia operation. He deleted the post while apologizing: “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

Not enough discretion with an indiscretion

BP Plc CEO Bernard Looney resigned in September over the failure to fully disclose past relationships with colleagues, forfeiting as much as £32.4 million ($41.4 million) in pay. BP said at the time that its board reviewed allegations relating to Looney’s past personal relationships with colleagues in 2022, finding no breaches of the company’s code of conduct. But then further allegations of a similar nature came to light, and Looney informed the company that he hadn’t been fully transparent with the previous investigation, the company said.

On his exit, Looney said in a statement he was “proud” of what he achieved as CEO, but was “disappointed with the way this situation has been handled.” BP doesn’t prohibit executive relationships. The new interim CEO, Murray Auchincloss, is also in a relationship with another BP employee, a company spokesperson said at the time, but had disclosed it previously.

The flight must go on

United Airlines Holdings Inc. canceled 751 flights on one day in June — more than any other airline — and its hub airport in Denver was among the hardest hit. But CEO Scott Kirby was able to bypass the congestion by taking a private jet to Denver from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey that day, prompting an apology.

“Taking a private jet was the wrong decision because it was insensitive to our customers who were waiting to get home,” Kirby said in an emailed statement. “I sincerely apologize to our customers and our team members who have been working around-the-clock for several days — often through severe weather — to take care of our customers.”

Not parting with that paycheck

Former Silicon Valley Bank CEO Greg Becker refused to commit to giving up his $10 million pay after the bank collapsed in March. Lawmakers pointed out that the bank failures cost the government’s bedrock deposit insurance fund billions of dollars, which will have to be replenished by other lenders.

Though he took the brunt of the criticism, Becker told the Senate Banking Committee that unprecedented events, interest-rate hikes and negative social media coverage rather than mismanagement were the root causes of the firm’s demise. Becker said he’d work with regulators to review compensation, but wouldn’t pledge to give anything back despite being pressed repeatedly to do so.

The HBO troll

Casey Bloys, CEO of HBO and Max content, apologized for using fake X accounts to troll TV critics who gave bad reviews to the network’s shows, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. According to the Times, Bloys said his passion for his company’s programming — and too much time on social media during the Covid-19 pandemic — led him to do it and he concluded it was “a very, very dumb idea.”

The posts, first reported in Rolling Stone, were surfaced in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former HBO employee. Bloys apologized to the journalists named in the article and said he now sends direct messages to those he disagrees with.

Pre-pink slip digital detox

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says he took a 10-day trip to French Polynesia for a so-called digital detox ahead of the company’s mass layoff of about 8,000 staff. A digital detox is when someone forgoes phones or computers for a period of time to feel more present and less dependent on technology and social media.

In a letter to employees at the time, Benioff said the company hired too many workers during the pandemic, which he took responsibility for. But Benioff also appeared tone-deaf, arriving late to a meeting the day after the layoff, joking, “did I miss something?” Some pointed out the irony of the sudden job cuts next to Benioff’s frequent characterization of the company as an Ohana, a Hawaiian term for family. – Bloomberg

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