How many execs really leave “to pursue other oportunities?”

Posted on October 27, 2008 3:28 pm by | Business | External | PR

At one of the Fortune 500 companies where I directed corporate communications, many years ago, a reorganization consolidated some of the company’s business units. In a game of executive musical chairs, one high-ranking exec was left without a job.

The press release the company issued used the typical jargon claiming that the poor fellow was leaving the company “to pursue other opportunities.” I suppose that was true. The interesting he was leaving to pursue was finding a job after being dumped from the organization.

Journalists are wise to this kind of euphemism. A night copy editor at one of the dailies covering the company ran the story under the headline, “So long, pal.” The clueless leaders of this company—my bosses—reacted to the headline by insisting that I call the lead business reporter who covered the company and inform him that we weren’t going to deal with him any longer.

The headline may have been snarky, but the “pursuing other opportunities” phrase, along with the lack of any substantive information at all, invited that snarkiness. Of course, the reason companies resort to such vague, non-communicative lingo is that the separation agreement reached with the departing executive insists on it, presumably because they don’t want anybody to learn the truth of the matter. I’ve often wondered how people can rise to such lofty positions in big companies with such thin skins.

This experience leapt to mind as I read a post by PR luminary Jim Horton about a similar announcement from iRobot announcing that its co-founder, Helen Greiner, had resigned as the company’s chairman to be replaced by her fellow co-founder Colin Aigle, who was serving as CEO.

The most Greiner or iRobot have had to say about the reason for the former chairman’s departure is that it was a mutual decision. This, according to the C|Net report, has fueled speculation about what really happened, suggesting that Greiner’s departure was not entirely voluntary. This will come as no surprise to people working in corporate communications who know that, in the absence of authoritative information, second-tier sources and gossip-mongers will rush in to fill the void. Information abhors a vacuum.

As Horton notes, it is the lack of transparency that sparked the rumor. “Wouldn’t it be better just to say that X left because she had a disagreement with the board, or she is tired and wants to move on, or she has another opportunity she wishes to pursue? That, at least, provides a context for stakeholders,” he says, adding, “Silence speaks louder than words.”

The next time an executive leaves your company’s ranks, consider the novel approach of just truthfully telling what happened. It may cause some discomfort, but that’s better than inaccurate speculation affecting perceptions of the organization.

 

Comments

  • 1.I hadn't heard of Helen's departure; thanks for this info. Real smart woman, I met her several times.

    The crux of your argument which every organization should follow is in your final paragraph where you mash together truth and speculation. As you know, Shel, with the web and the ease of researching information, let alone broadcasting it, I feel it's crucial for organizations to be truthful and transparent to their customers, competitors, and anyone else with an ear.

    Failure to be truthful and transparent leads to, well, speculation.

    Ari Herzog | October 2008 | Newburyport, MA, USA

  • 2.While I'm generally in favor of calling a spade a bloody shovel, I can think of one circumstance in which a C-level employee does leave to pursue other opportunities: when that person gets headhunted by another company and receives an irresistible offer.

    But in those cases, the press releases usually come from the hiring company and say "X leaves Company A to work for Company B."

    Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with "sketch") | October 2008 | The Spectacular San Francisco Bay Area

  • 3.I wish this was so simple, but I think your reasoning is a little naive. Imagine what would happen if the truth was told. You write a press release that says something like "Following the reorganization there was no suitable position for Helen because she was the weakest board member. Some of us found it hard to work with her, and if the truth be known she was pretty tired of us too...". Or perhaps you go with "Helen will be leaving us because she doesn't agree with the vision the board has set for the company".

    If you ran with something like the first one (even if written more diplomatically) Helen's chances of getting a new job have been undermined and it raises the idea that perhaps this leadership team is hard to work with.

    If you ran something like the second one you've just invited all sorts of questions about the company vision. Finance journos would love to have that to chomp on.

    By using a near meaningless euphemism you've let the dear departed tell their own version of why they've left - which is more ethical. You'd be essentially treating a VP as any other employee and not announcing to the world why they've left. You've also given nothing substantive to a hungry media looking for weakness in the c-suite.

    I don't like lying in my profession either. It's fundamentally wrong. So perhaps the best way out is to say even less?

    Mark Finney | October 2008

  • 4.There are important lessons here for all of us. If it is so difficult to convince people to avoid such euphemism in the West, perhaps it would take much longer to do the same in places like India, where public relations is just maturing.

    J S Sai | October 2008

  • 5.Shel,

    A timely post. I will be leaving my position at the end of the year "to pursue other opportunities." In my case they're calling it "retirement" although fishing and playing golf are not in my plans.

    I'm still in my 50s, at least for two more days and I still have bills to pay. I'll definitely be "pursuing other opportunities". Fortunately even though my decision to retire was a bit of a shock, it wasn't entirely unexpected so I've been working on building up my list of connections for quite a while.

    I suppose, unless you're independently wealthy (which I'm not), the "opportunities" story is always true, if incomplete.

    Mike Buckley | October 2008 | Saint Louis, MO

  • 6.The gloss of "other opportunities" can also preserve dignity. The media can always go track down the individual and ask them why they left, though an organization has no obligation to facilitate that access. Other times the truth is unpalatable -- as these other commenters have noted. One possibility is to simply state that the person has left the company to be succeeded by X, with no explanation at all.

    Sean Williams | October 2008 | Cleveland, Ohio

  • 7.Mark and Sean, I think there's a middle ground between an unvarnished and harsh statement and the "other opportunities" euphemism that leads to speculation. The problem with speculation in the era of social media is that it can produce more dire consequences than the bruised feelings caused by the truth. Why not say, "Because X and the executive team have been unable to reconcile their divergent vision for the company's future, X will be leaving the company."

    Also, I'd note that in my previous experience, the exec left without a job wasn't the weakest member of the team. Rather, his expertise was tied up in a business unit that was absorbed into another bigger unit, and the exec with responsibility for the bigger unit was the one who remained. I don't think the truth there is unpalatable, either.

    Preserving dignity is fine. Maintaining the company's reputation for credibility is far more important, particularly when you can tell the truth without being mean or nasty about it.

    Shel Holtz | October 2008

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