# Learning from CEO wreckage: what can I learn from this experience of failure?

HR stated, quite explicitly, that new hires should introduce themselves to the CEO, and emphasized that there was an open door policy. I did so, or tried to, and the half-listening CEO, who didn't seem to be particularly interested in new hires introducing themselves, heard my "real" message despite my attempts to explicitly clarify otherwise. Word about the "real" message filtered down the chain, and everyone above me was shocked that I approached the CEO about this issue.

What I said was that I saw XYZ, which was the most positive thing I had seen in any place I worked (I said this vigorously), and that cost management seemed to be taken in terms of managing initial outlay instead of managing total cost of ownership, for instance in the cheaper equipment costing hours of employee time. When I saw that he latched onto my remark about equipment, I tried to clarify that that was not my point and "I have everything I want." (Too late.) What went down was that I had approached him about equipment

The position ended shortly after.

What can I learn from this?

• What was the "real" message? Why did you say anything other than something like "My name is user10346; I just started here as a (whatever your position was)."? – GreenMatt Aug 26 '13 at 18:03
• Imagine if the CEO had done the same right back at you: "Hello user10346 -- welcome to the company. After a brief scanning of your resume and getting first impressions from one of my staff members standing next to me at the urinal, I've come to some knee-jerk conclusions about your value to the office. Your resume is one of the most impressive I've seen, though it seems as if you are prone to judgmental outbursts at inappropriate times and lack basic social skills." Not exactly endearing, is it? – jmac Aug 26 '13 at 23:45
• Realize that using catch phrases like Total Cost of Ownership and Initial Outlay to make yourself sound smarter than you actually are can absolutely backfire. – nathan hayfield Aug 27 '13 at 0:54
• What were you expecting the CEO to do when being told this comment? You're bringing up a complaint that likely could have been reported in alternate methods that weren't used which is a major issue here to my mind. – JB King Aug 27 '13 at 2:39
• I still have no idea what your "real message" was... – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Aug 27 '13 at 13:00

What can I learn from this?

1. Be careful what you say. If you aren't sure - just be quiet
2. Be careful to whom you say it. If you aren't sure - just be quiet
3. Never assume you understand what "open door policy" (or any other buzzword) means at a particular company
4. With all communications, but particularly with folks higher up on the food chain than you, make sure you understand all factors involved before communicating
5. When in doubt, refer to learnings #1 and #2
• Well spoken. And especially with open door policies, I recognize that that usually doesn't really mean "Good faith efforts will not be punished, no matter what." – user10346 Aug 26 '13 at 20:10
• @user10346 - open door policy may mean the doors are open on the way out. – Deer Hunter Aug 26 '13 at 21:05
• Also: brevity and clarity are extremely important. – Nicole Aug 26 '13 at 22:42
• Isn't that also something cultural? I've learned that in the US you wrap words in sugar before saying them. In Germany, often you just say it. – Eekhoorn Aug 27 '13 at 13:44
• Love it, but I'd add one more - if you see an issue or have a critique or a critical question - bring it to your direct management first, unless the issue is regarding your direct managment. Start by working lowest manager upward. Don't offer your critical observations to the CEO first. – bethlakshmi Nov 12 '13 at 14:25

From what you wrote, it actually sounds like you are pointing out a serious issue, not complementing the company. Saying that 'total cost of ownership is not taken into account as much as initial outlay' is saying that 'we wind up paying more money overall by trying to save a couple bucks on the initial purchase'. From the CEO's perspective, that would be a big issue, wasting potentially very large amounts of money.

The CEO surely investigated (or had someone else investigate) and found that this was untrue. Even if it were true, the investigation found it to be false, and your statement to the CEO was unsupported by evidence. Your comment unintentionally(?) pitted the CEO against the IT department. We do not know the company politics, but if the CEO and head of IT are at odds with each other, then your passing comment may have been taken by the CEO as an opportunity to politically damage the head of IT. The CEO may even have used this ammunition in front of their shared boss. When it was discovered to be a baseless accusation, this could easily have embarassed the CEO. And it would look like your fault. Or, if the allegation is true, the head of IT (or purchasing, or wherever) just got politically damaged, possibly in a career limiting way withon the current company. Whoever was politically harmed may have political clout with your manager.

As others mentioned, just the investigation cost the company money, based on a baseless comment.

Issues are not normally brought to the CEO like this, in places where I have worked and places I have heard of. Only confirmed, evidence based, serious issues are brought to the CEO. Issues like this go to Procurement, IT, or Purchasing. And if you don't have hard evidence, they start out with questions -'how do you manage equipment purchasing? How do you manage total cost of ownership?' if there is an issue, you work with your manager to protect yourself first, and as an opportunity for your manager to teach you how to influence others. By skipping this and going straight to the CEO, you show yourself as 'not a team player' - you didn't work with the team to fix the issue.

Again, from the CEO's perspective, the CEO now sees you as someone who wastes company time and money. Someone who makes baseless accusations. Who may have embarrassed the CEO ot the head of IT.

Here's what you need to learn:

• Open door policies are not invitations to make baseless claims.
• Open door policies are not invitations to make unimportant claims.
• Learn to 'know your audience'
• Don't throw others 'under the bus' unless you really mean to, or without evidence. it will backfire.
• There are three messages to everything we say. What we mean, what we say and what is heard. The message that is heard is the most important of the three. You need to take communication lessons until you understand this statement.
• Just because you are very vigorous about one thing you say, that doesn't mean your audience will care. You need to know what your audience cares about and realize that's what they'll remember from your conversation.
• Take presentation skills training. You might consider joining Toastmasters if there's one in your area.
• You cannot take words back after you say them. Be sure that the message that is heard the first time is the same as the message you mean.
• Learn what it means to 'stay above the line'. See the edit, below.
• Next time you meet the CEO, thank them for seeing you. Ask them something commensurate with their position, like, "I'm still learning the ins and outs of the company, and I'd really like to know what your vision is. Having an idea of your vision for the company/my product line/my product will help me to best focus my energies to fulfill that vision."
• If things backfire like this, ask your boss, "I'm really sorry for causing all this trouble. I don't understand how this happened. I'd really like the opportunity to improve and be able to avoid this pitfall again. And if it's possible, I'd like to try and fix the problem I caused. What should I do? How did this go so wrong?'

EDIT: Above the line

Imagine that there's a line that separates positive statements on the top and negative statements on the bottom. Constructive, positive statements will often ease communication. People are generally more likely to listen when you tell them "I have a way we can make this even better" than when you tell them "that's stupid and broken."

    That's a good idea.
I like that
I have an alternative approach
How can we make this better?
--------------------------------------
That's stupid
I hate that
That approach won't work
That's broken.


Staying above the line means restricting yourself to positive statements. It means stopping and thinking before you speak to ensure that your words are above the line. The words may have the same basic meaning, but their implication and the tone of your voice encourage the person rather than attack them.

Use words and form sentences that are positive, collaborative, and encouraging. Use an enthusiastic, encouraging tone of voice.

In the original example, you tried to present "Total cost of ownership is not taken into account as much as initial outlay" as a positive statement. It's not. A positive statement would be, "I'm impressed with how effective the company is managing budget," or "I haven't seen a lot of places who are as good at controlling equipment costs while providing engineers with the equipment they need as yours is." The first, saying "total cost of ownership is not taken into account..." is negative. The two subsequent examples are positive - they are above the line.

• Re: "learn what it means to 'stay above the line'. Investigating this yourself will be benificial to your development, so i am not providing a link": I'd ask that you reconsider this. The OP is not the only person who may benefit from this answer, but it will not be obvious to all readers whether that bit of advice is applicable to them or not. – ruakh Aug 27 '13 at 4:50
• @rukah: good point. I'll try to remember to update this in a day or two. I still think that, based on the original question, user10346 sounds young enough that learning to investigate this would be helpful, so I'll give him/her a few days to do so :) – atk Aug 27 '13 at 13:26
• @atk We're waiting. – KOVIKO Sep 18 '13 at 13:28
• @Koviko: Thanks for the reminder! I've updated the answer to include links & description of "above the line" – atk Sep 18 '13 at 15:06
• It's almost never a good idea to mention a problem unless you have a plan to solve it, and you're ready to implement it. Otherwise you give the impression you're trying to assign work to someone else. And you were hired to do work for the company; not assign tasks to the CEO.

• One think I learned a long time ago. The business is not mine to run unless I own it and take responsibility for the results. My employer is not called user814064 Incorporated. What if the CEO had said user10346 I'll buy the group new equipment. If we don't get a 25% ROI on the investment can you make up our profit margin? Please give the money to our bonding company by the end of the day.

• On the other hand you can say I noticed some unused computer equipment in office xyz. Would you like me to help set it up for the new hire who is starting tomorrow? See the dramatic difference? Problem-solver not problem-creator.

• I can assure that you're not unique in thinking you can run things better. Lots and lots of people think that way. That's really easy.

• But look at the positives: You were at the job for a short period of time, it's not like you spent your most of your career somewhere and got laid off after 30 years. And you're trying to learn from the experience.

• Lots and lots of people think that way. I'm... not convinced, I think most people are very tolerant of utterly ridiculous processes and problems for the sake of not rocking the boat. – enderland Aug 27 '13 at 22:55
• @enderland - Everyone has an opinion on how things would run better. Most of them are centered entirely on themselves with out a concern for the whole business. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 28 '13 at 13:36
• @enderland The fact that most people are tolerant of utterly ridiculous processes means that lots of people do in fact think they can run things better (they just choose not to mention it). Otherwise most people would be elated with the current "efficient implementation of processes" – slebetman Mar 29 '19 at 9:01

When ever you talk to someone in the management chain other than your direct supervisor and you criticize even small things it is perceived that you are trying to change that thing. So what you should learn from this is:

When you make the decision to speak with someone higher in your management chain about any issue, make sure that you have your manager at your back for that conversation, or that you are willing to accept the consequences of going around your manager.

You should have stopped at "This is the greatest company I have ever worked for, thank you." When you talked with the CEO about the minor issue the CEO may have felt obliged to find out if this was an issue that was going to damage the company. The CEO probably spent several hours talking with managers, and the board about the issue you brought up. In the end your comment may have cost the company thousands of dollars in lost time of managers having to show that their people did have the tools they needed to do their job. After that storm settled someone had to pay for the mess that was created. That was you.

What can I learn from this?

You need to learn to there is a right place, a right time, and a right way to say things.

It sounds like you failed on some or all of those qualifiers.

For example, screaming out "I'm surrounded by @holes" at a company townhall is the wrong time/place/way to say it. While something like "It seems to me that steps XYZ could improve our company culture" over a bi-weekly one on one would be much better.

Do not just take this as a lesson to shut up and be quiet at work when you see problems. But do understand that the more sensitive the issue, the more careful you have to be approaching it. Almost everything can be presented in a positive, constructive manner at the right time. You just need to learn to do that.

• Probably all. I was trying to present things positively and constructively, and trying too hard to be constructive. And, perhaps, failing to recognize that this was an issue for people ahead of me in the org chart to address, and I should have honed in on the responsibilities for which I was hired. – user10346 Aug 26 '13 at 20:06

There are many reasons for certain practices and you better know them before speaking. And when you do, don't say it to anyone beyond your immediate supervisor. Your supervisor should be letting you know what is important to the group. Your ideas may be valid, but can be counter-productive to the mission. Maybe your supervisor thinks there is a better chance to get more staff before thinking about equipment. Some equipment costs can have accounting and taxation implications, so you can't treat all costs the same reguardless of the money value.

Introducing yourself should not include making suggestions. I don't know how large your company is, but can you expect any one person to take suggestions from everyone else? You saw the CEO wasn't paying attention but you continued the conversation and wonder why your message was confused? Stop talking when people aren't paying attention. Say thank you and leave.