Employee Engagement 101 - Can Frontline Managers Impact Voluntary Turnover?
I'm Stealing Your Talent With Cold, Hard Cash....

CEO's on the Cursing, Yelling "Straight Talk" Express - Leaders or Liabilities?

A lot's been written about the rantings of Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire who recently became a media magnate when he bought the Tribune Co.   If you're late to the game about who this guy is or what he's done, here's all you need to know:

1.  Zell became a media tycoon when he bought the Tribune Company, which means he bought a bunch of newspapers and assorted media companies.

2.  Zell went on a straight talk express, where he did a tour of the newspaper newsrooms and tried to shake things up.

3.  Zell's approach includes, a) cursing, b) yelling, c) telling people to stop spending time on being politically correct, and d) challenging a lot of conventional wisdom in the newspapers he owns.

Which begs a question.  Are CEO's and owners who engage in a profane, animated discourse with employees leaders or liabilities?  Is it possible they can be both, with the scales tipping one way or the other based on the overall circumstances before them and facing the companies they manage?

I'm conflicted on when the approach is warranted, although there are certainly industries and workforces that are more open to the message than others.   The rationalization is usually the need for a "sense of urgency".  Is that a good reason?

Take a look at this latest clip (running time - 5 minutes, warning PG-13), where Zell explains his approach to some folks at the Chicago Tribune, and decide for yourself.  If you want more Zell, go to YouTube.  It's not hard to find...

(Hat tip on video to



Abusive leadership can and will work in driving results, but not over the long haul.

Going to the sports world, we can all point to coaches who are dictators, who lead via tyranny, micromanagement, and abuse (Bill Parcells?) and who get results in the win-loss column. But how many of those people are in the same position more than five years?

After a certain amount of this noise the troops tune out. The message gets old and repetetive. The boss clearly doesn't respect me, so why should I continue to bust my hump year after year for an organization that is demeaning?

I think this is why you can still find so many "old school" coaches in the collegiate ranks; guaranteed turnover. Kids graduate and move on, constantly being repaced by a new group. Though, with time even college kids are growing much less tolerant of abusive treatment.

The real risk with employing this approach, even to create a short term sense of urgency, is that you risk creating a culture that expects and tolerates people treating one another like jerks. Not the ideal approach to retaining talent.


Personally, I like the straight talk. Perhaps, as an HR professional, it's not "right" for me to like it, but I think it's something that's sorely missing in business today. Employees deserve to have a leader who's going to tell them how the business is doing, where the business is heading, what challenges lie ahead, what the competition is doing better and most of all, what the score (profit/loss) of the game is (not intended to add yet another sports analogy, but there you go...). Are his words abrasive? Yes. Do they get your attention? Yes. Are they disrespectful? Debatable. I didn't find any of his comments in this particular clip disrespectful towards any one person or group of employees. I guess one could argue that his tone and language are "disrespectful" and stretch it out to "creating a hostile work environment", but that might be a stretch.

At the end of the day, we all have choices to make. Choices about where we work, what job we're going to do to pay the bills and who we want to work for. If employees don't want to work for Zell and be part of the culture he's trying to create, they can leave. My guess is that those who choose to stay are choosing to get more engaged in the business and choosing to be better at what they do. Those two things along are a force to be reckoned with.


I was a newspaper journalist for 15 years, and now that I've spent two years in the business world, I've been learning just how uncouth newsrooms are. I worked in newsrooms where yelling was common -- back-and-forth discussions over everyone's heads and actual arguments -- and profanity was spoken regularly. It was no big deal to anyone I worked with, regardless of age. I do admit that I didn't take the time to watch the clip you posted, but unless this guy was picking on people personally and unfairly, his style sounds right on course for newsroom folks, who probably barely noticed. (But let me tell you, I've learned how to speak quietly and walk softly now that I'm HR!)

The comments to this entry are closed.