It's a fair question. The best answer, I suppose, is that I’m deeply steeped in bad management as a result of having worked for so many different bosses over the years. I’ve had some good ones, but the sad reality is that I have had far more terribly incompetent (and sometimes nasty) managers than good ones. And those are the people you tend to remember most.
That’s what led me to the annual Stupidus Maximus Award, which I give each spring to the "most ignorant, shortsighted and dumb workforce management practice of the year." There are many awards that recognize forward-thinking workforce initiatives—Workforce Management’s Optimas Awards is one of them—but there are very few that focus on the other side of the coin: the regressive, ham-fisted policies and actions that cripple and diminish the workforce and the organization’s ability to truly succeed.
This year’s "winner" shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who regularly reads my Business of Management blog (www.workforce. com/wpmu/bizmgmt), because the honoree is so over-the-top terrible as a manager that I find myself writing about him again and again, whether I like it or not. He’s the gift that keeps on giving, and his earthy, foul-mouthed demeanor makes him the perfect bad manager, as though he had been sent from central casting. It’s Sam Zell, CEO of the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and many other media properties.
What makes Zell this year’s winner? It’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few examples:
• He publicly belittles his employees, swears at them and engages in sexist, boorish and inappropriate speech that is unacceptable in any professional environment. Zell’s public outbursts got so bad that it forced senior managers at Tribune’s Los Angeles Times to send out a memo to the workforce warning that they couldn’t talk like the boss does. Despite what Zell says (or how he says it), "the fundamental rules of decorum and decency apply." The memo went on to add, "Sam is a force of a nature; the rest of us are bound by the normal conventions of society."
• He brought in heavy-handed managers, such as COO Randy Michaels, who seem to delight not only in publicly demeaning Tribune workers, but also in exercising the power they have to get rid of them. In fact, Michaels got into an e-mail exchange with a Chicago Tribune reader in which he made light of layoffs at the company, essentially saying: Who cares if Tribune fires a couple hundred journalists? "The fact is that we can hire as many great journalists as we like because almost all papers are letting them go," he wrote. "Pointing out problems is not helpful."
• He had a class-action lawsuit brought against him by a group of current and former Los Angeles Times staffers who contend "that reckless management is destroying the value of the company," according to a Times story. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, "alleges that Zell and former Tribune CEO Dennis J. FitzSimons devised a plan to take the company private to enrich themselves to the detriment of employees."
Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008, and yet Zell continues to avoid any responsibility for the state of the company, claiming that it wasn’t his doing. Instead, he blames a "perfect storm" of economic factors.
"The only perfect storm to hit Tribune," wrote Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein, "was the one that resulted from the collision of Zell’s ego, his arrogance and his utter ineptitude in running a media empire, along with a total disregard for the financial well-being of thousands of employees whose retirement assets he commandeered for a financing scheme that gave him control of the company while putting in very little of his own money."
That sums up Sam Zell perfectly, and it is what makes him this year’s Stupidus Maximus honoree. He’s a man for all seasons, a guy who not only is adept at demoralizing his workforce, but also makes himself look crazy at the same time. In a world with so many bad managers, that’s a tough combination to beat.
Workforce Management, April 6, 2009, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!