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Squashed

I rate shareholders, meddlesome hedge fund managers, know-it-all private equity guys and even the man in the street often act …

I rate shareholders, meddlesome hedge fund managers, know-it-all private equity guys and even the man in the street often act as if being a chief executive officer is a day at the beach, a stroll in the park, a picnic. This is a misperception, perhaps a deliberate one. CEOs, it just so happens, have to deal with shrinking markets, tumbling stock prices, abrupt shifts in consumer tastes and pressure from disgruntled employees, not to mention the carping of irate shareholders, meddlesome hedge fund managers and know-it-all private equity guys. But of all the issues CEOs have to deal with, none is more gutwrenching and infuriating than having to respond to the snide letter from the gloating money manager who fancies himself a bit of a jock.

Last fall, if TheWall Street Journal is to be believed, money manager Glenn Greenberg, son of the famous baseball player Hank Greenberg, sat down and wrote an angry letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. The gist of the epistle was that Roberts was simply not getting the job done. But it wasn’t enough that Greenberg saw fit to blast Roberts for his alleged mismanagement of the nation’s largest cable network. It wasn’t enough that he had to blame Roberts for the company’s dwindling stock price. No, just to rub it in, just to really put some sting in that scorpion’s tale, Greenberg had to toss in a little dig about his correspondent’s athletic skills.

“I know you are a competitive guy, as am I,” Greenberg wrote. “I once had a No. 4 U.S. squash ranking, so I know that you care about winning and are able to push yourself hard to be a winner.” After a few less general quibbles about Comcast’s recent performance, Greenberg added: “You think you are hitting beautiful strokes, but you are losing the game.”

Seriously, folks, is there anything worse than having your leadership style and management philosophy likened to a squash game? Is there anything more annoying than coming into the office in the morning and having to open a letter bristling with incoherent sports metaphors? For that matter, is there anything worse than being insulted by someone who used to be the No. 4 squash player in the U.S., and who thinks that this in itself qualifies him to tell you how to run the cable TV business?

Let me make it perfectly clear that I hold no brief for Mr. Roberts; indeed, as a lifetime supporter of the Philadelphia 76ers, a basketball team that has become increasingly pathetic since Comcast acquired it a few years back, I wish that the embattled CEO would mosey on down to the Wachovia Center in South Philadelphia and ream a few people out. Be that as it may, it is my firm belief that no one, but no one, should have to sit back and patiently take abuse from someone who used to be the No. 4 squash player in the U.S. Or even the No. 3. I have no idea how Mr. Roberts responded to Greenberg’s brash missive. But if I were he, mindful of Greenberg’s baseball pedigree, and bearing in mind that Comcast owns both the 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, I would fire back with a few choice sports metaphors of my own:

“Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Thanks for your letter. As you know, having once been the No. 4 squash player in America, running a business is no slam dunk. Getting a few points on the scoreboard after you’ve been down on the canvas is tough sledding; in the school of hard knocks, you can’t hit a home run every day. But even when I sometimes get sacked for a loss, I still believe I can hit the long ball if I can just get in the ring and hold serve. One thing I never lose sight of: Just as there is no €˜I’ in €˜team,’ there is no €˜I’ in €˜squash.’ You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t used any squash metaphors in this missive. I don’t think there are any. Which is my way of saying: I’ll take advice about running my business from Monday morning quarterbacks and fair-weather fans, but I’m not taking it from a washed-up squash player.

The ball’s in your court.”

 

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.