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When CEOs Speak Bluntly

Lately news reports of CEOs speaking plainly or using “salty” language have become more common. Is this really all that new, or are some ears more sensitive than others?

The CEO of Titan Industrial Maurice “Morry “ Tayler made headlines in France when he sent a sharply worded letter to Arnaud Montebourg , France’s minister for industrial renewal, concerning union working practices. In it he told the minister, among other things that “you must think we’re really stupid.”

Based in Quincy, ILL. Titan makes wheels for off-highway vehicles and during the 1990s it has been acquiring European tire manufacturers. In 2005, they acquired Goodyear’s farm tire assets in North America. Five years later, they bought Goodyear’s Latin American farm tire business. With the Latin American acquisition was a clause requiring Titan to draw up a social plan concerning the Goodyear automobile tire plant in Amiens, France, for possible purchase. “It shows how screwed up things are in France when a company tries to save jobs,” commented Taylor.” Titan has other acquisitions that have been on hold while the put option was still active. Now Titan will pursue those options instead of waiting for the French union to start thinking about their members. Titan spent a lot of time and money trying to get Goodyear’s social plan approved but only a non business person would understand the French labor rules. The French workers are very good at what they do when they work but as I told the union personnel, you cannot get paid seven hours for three hours of work.”

“Sir, your letter suggests you would like to open discussions with Titan. How stupid do you think we are? Titan has money and the know-how to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government. The French farmer wants cheap tires. He doesn’t care if those tires come from China or India or if those tires are subsidized. Titan is going to buy Chinese or Indian tires, pay less than one euro an hour to workers and export all the tires France needs.

Montebourg, whose political views make France’s president look like a centrist, replied, saying that the American’s comments were “as extreme as they were insulting” and showed his “perfect ignorance of our country and its solid advantages.”

Then there is the case of David Farr, Chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric. At a meeting with analysts and investors in Columbus, OH, Farr derided those who regard his firm as a one dimensional maker of data-center equipment. “We are not a one-trick pony,” said Farr as quoted by The Wall Street Journal. “If I see that in writing, one more god damn time, I’m going to tear them apart.” According to the Journal report, Farr continued “unleashing his salty tongue” until he switched gears and attempted to make nice. “I apologize for swearing. You guys piss me off when you write that. You haven’t figured that out. And I’ve been training real hard the last couple of years to kick your ass.” Some investment analysts were quoted as saying that such outbursts, “do not inspire confidence. Another said “I don’t think he means any harm, but at times he goes too far.”

Although it did not find him using any salty language, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the new CEO of PNC Financial, William Demchek, “is known for his candor,” and referred to him as a “blunt” speaking CEO. Demchek left a lucrative job at J.P. Morgan Chase investment bank more than 10 years ago to join PNC Financial Service Group. J.P. Morgan “wasn’t a terribly enjoyable place to work” Demchek told the Journal. As incendiary remarks go it seems fairly tame, but the overall report fits a strange pattern.

Are business leaders today any more plain spoken or profane that in previous times? Most leaders, knowing that they are speaking publicly, choose their words carefully. But outspokenness is nothing new. One web site lists the top ten CEOs who frequently swear in public. WWE’s Dana White is ranked No. 1. Every so often Jack Welch was noted for dressing down analysts he thought had the wrong end of the stick, and former AIG boss, Hank Greenberg was legendary for not suffering fools gladly. In fact, his plain spokenness was part of the Greenberg “charm.”

Writing in HBR, Dan McGlinn argues that leaders always used casual swearing in private to bond with an audience as if to say “I shouldn’t say this, but…” In the age of Oprah, Dr. Phil, Jersey Shore, Twitter and Facebook, private behaviors tend to leek into one’s public performance. Some CEOs may use it as part of their theatrical performance the way Donald Trump speaks about public and media figures he doesn’t care about.





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