Toxic CEO Ted Provides a Lesson: How NOT to Run a Business

He said he really needed to speak with me about an urgent matter.

He said he needed at least a couple hours and would buy me lunch if I helped him work through the problem.

He said he had nobody else he could turn to and because we have totally different business philosophies he really needed me even though he knew I had no respect for him.

He said he needed a friend.

Maybe I was more curious than I was motivated to help, but I couldn’t refuse this invitation. So I met with this CEO for a privately-held firm, and for purposes of this post we’ll call him Ted.

Ted is one of naturally brightest people I know and at a very young age he built a formidable company. But Ted used his native intelligence to constantly scheme and find ways to make money by really bending the rules; reneging on agreements, overcharging customers in hopes they wouldn’t notice, and engaging in several other unethical and possibly even illegal tactics.

Ted is a lazy guy, he would much rather use his God-given brainpower to find the easy way rather than pushing himself to really build something. So Ted is probably the dumbest person I know. I will say this though, from time-to-rime, especially when he was caught in one of his schemes, he did try to clean his ethics and practices up. Although I hadn’t been in touch with Ted for a long time I was rather certain that these periodic spasms of operating integrity never lasted very long.

Ted has always believed he was able to make a great deal of money by always outsmarting everyone else. This also allowed Ted to not work very hard and because he had found a handful of employees that served as trusted accomplices Ted could enjoy a life of leisure funded by a steady stream of what I can only consider to be ill-gotten income. Ted had always said the reason he wanted to run his own company was it would allow him to “make a lot of money”. Furthermore, Ted created a company culture that was addicted to the same.

Ted’s willing accomplices extended to more than just low-skilled low-talent employees that would do his (literally) dirty work to draw a paycheck; a paycheck that was always far greater than anything any of them could have ever dreamt imaginable. Because Ted’s company routinely posted impressive top-line growth for most of this decade lenders were tripping all over themselves to give him money.

There are many excellent small/mid-sized companies that are being choked to death today because banks aren’t lending; the unemployment rate is indescribably scary because these cash-starved companies can’t financially maintain a workforce. In large part, Ted and others like him are the root cause. In larger part, the bankers who ignored fundamentals are really to blame for the mess. But that’s not what Ted wanted to talk to me about.

As a man who built a business based solely on short-term thinking and taking obnoxious short-cuts, current economic conditions have accelerated and highlighted Ted’s many corporate shortcomings. Dependent on equally short-term thinking bankers who were no longer there for him, some calling in major loans early, his business was being squeezed. Competitors were taking business away from him at eye-popping rates; some customers disappeared quietly, others have litigated. His company was bleeding at such a furious pace he had to significantly cut back on staff and when even that wasn’t enough to cover his growing financial shortfalls he had to impose radical salary reductions for remaining employees. His low-skilled low-talent staff hadn’t developed real professional capability; they were doing what the boss told them and drawing hefty paychecks in return…until now. But that’s not what Ted wanted to talk to me about either.

No, Ted’s urgent matter was that he had just uncovered a ring within his organization, comprised of the most trusted of his inner-circle staff, where his employees were selling his company data to competitors and, of course pocketing these ill-gotten gains themselves. Ted was angry about this but as I listened to him he was clearly more hurt. After all, how could they do this to him!?!? How could they not show Ted the loyalty due him since he had taken such good care of them all these years, especially at a time when he most needed them!?!?!??!

What he initially said he wanted from me was advice on what he should do. Should he prosecute all for industrial espionage? Or should he get some to turn over on others and just make examples of a few (the few would be those he liked the least anyhow)? But as Ted kept talking he then said, “But I can’t really do anything can I? They all know too much and they might get me in trouble.” In truth what he really wanted was a forum to rant and engage in one of his most common practices: self-justification and putting the blame elsewhere.

I gave Ted the couple of hours he requested and I don’t think I said more than 20 words the whole time. Yes, Ted said he wanted my helpful advice but he really didn’t, and if actually asked I wouldn’t have told him anything he wanted to hear. Of course we both knew this going in to that lunch meeting.

Ted was distressed because his employees were disloyal and did despicable things to him. It seems to me that in this case, these despicable employees showed themselves to be totally loyal to Ted: they acted exactly the way they had seen him and conducted themselves as he has. For a brief period of time Ted thought he had it all, thought he had figured it out better than anyone ever could. Forever, Ted will be toxic.

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