Archive for April 12th, 2007

“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (to which Ernest Hemingway is said to have responded, “Yes, they have more money”). I don’t know about the rich, but as a consultant and a manager, I’ve worked closely with at least twenty Chief Executive Officers, mostly of small to medium sized companies in high-tech. And yes, they are different the rest of us. They have to be, for each of them to solder his or her sense of self to the fortunes of a company instead of just looking to get by or hoping for a pleasurable or meaningful way to survive. But sooner or later, virtually every CEO I’ve known well has said in a self-congratulatory tone to me, “I feed X number of families” — “X” being the number of employees in the CEO’s company.

I’ve heard this phrase over drinks at a bar. I’ve heard it in a board room scrambling to put together a presentation, and several times sitting around with my feet on the desk on a Friday afternoon. But, no matter where I hear it, I never fail to be annoyed by its smug assumptions. Probably, I’ve never left behind my days as Chief Steward of my union at my university — or maybe I’m just an anarchist at heart. But I like to think that it’s my love of logic that always makes me want to denounce this claim.

No, I always think, you do not feed any family except your own. To congratulate yourself on that, you would have to be giving charity, and you’re not. Each of your employees feed his or her families. The fact that they do so by signing a contract with you, exchanging their labor for cash is incidental, and gives you no right to feel self-congratulatory. The exchange of labor and cash cancels any right you have for self-satisfaction. If you and your company didn’t exist, your employees would be making the same exchange with some else. Most of them, chances are, wouldn’t be on the street.

Of course, the subtext to this comment is the CEO’s satisfaction with the size of the company and their own alleged accomplishment. But why they regard the company in this way, I don’t know. Is it something they learn in MBA programs? But, then, anyone who can believe that chairing a meeting or negotiating a deal has any relation to samurais, Henry V or Antarctic explorers can probably believe anything.

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