Exit Lines

When a top executive leaves his or her post, how should that departure be handled? With an emphasis on frankness or an emphasis on grace, however disingenuous it may be? Consider two specimens in the news recently: Ted Turner and Webvan’s George Shaheen.

Last year, some months after the merger of AOL and Time Warner was announced, Ted Turner was fired. This is what Turner now says, according to a long profile of him by Ken Auletta in the current issue of The New Yorker. Unsurprisingly, Gerald Levin, who is CEO of the merged company, is quoted throwing water on this notion, insisting that he “didn’t fire” Turner at all. More intriguing is Levin’s assertion elsewhere in the story that Turner’s comments are evidence of a kind of childlike unawareness of certain conventions and rules of modern life. Explains Levin, “You don’t say in business, ‘I got fired.’ “

One would think you could say, “I got fired” if you did, actually, get fired. But upon reflection, maybe Levin is right to observe that such things simply are not done “in business.” Executives tend to exit companies “by mutual agreement” to “pursue other interests” or for “personal reasons,” and if this “departure” is high-profile enough, it’s not unusual for the executive to essentially fade away and offer no comment whatsoever. Douglas Ivester and Jill Barad, formerly of Coca Cola and Mattel, have issued no “I was fired”-style summations of their apparent ousters and are presumably content, wherever they are, managing their huge severance packages.

Why should it be any different? What Levin articulates here is not so much a telling critique of Turner, but rather a simple truth about the business world, which is that despite the widespread notion that the capital class is full of bottom-line-oriented straight talkers who have no truck with the mealy-mouthed world of, say, politics, it turns out that corporate leaders have a remarkable penchant for obfuscation and euphemism.

I haven’t read anything to suggest that Shaheen was fired. To the contrary, he is reported to have “resigned” or “stepped down.” His inevitable prepared statement said, “A different kind of executive is needed to lead the company at this time and as such, it no longer makes sense for me to continue in my role and I will be leaving the company.” According to the Wall Street Journal, a spokesman added that the company seeks a new CEO with “more operational experience.” This is curious, because this spin is generally applied to young founders who must be elbowed out of the way to make room for a real chief executive who has run something large—like Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), where Shaheen was top dog before bailing to take the Webvan post. If Shaheen wasn’t hired for his “operational experience,” then what exactly was he hired for? Well, that’s an awkward question, and we’re unlikely to hear it straightforwardly answered anytime soon. The spokesman said that Shaheen did not plan to join another company, and Shaheen himself remains mute.

This, of course, is standard operating procedure, and it helps clarify Levin’s professed attitude. Levin isn’t saying that Turner has committed professional suicide by saying he was canned (the notion is irrelevant to someone like Turner, who is both a career loose cannon and a billionaire besides) or even that he is painting a dishonestly theatrical version of his plight. What Levin is accusing Turner of is bad form. By any rational standard, Turner’s comment is refreshing. Under the cautious etiquette of business, however, Levin is correct: What would appear to be simple candor on Turner’s part has left everyone embarrassed—something to be avoided, whatever the facts might be. In other words, the reason you should avoid frankly discussing your dismissal “in business” is not to protect yourself—it’s to protect everyone else.

Finally, you might think that this careful etiquette would include special dispensation for the entrepreneur who loses control of his or her brainchild, but even there the rules are clear. Earlier this year Louis Borders, who (for better or worse) dreamed up Webvan and held the CEO post there until he gave it up to make way for Shaheen, resigned from the firm’s board of directors. According to a company press release, he did so for “personal reasons.”