CEO Symbolic fallout, 2023 Edition

Rita McGrath
6 min readMay 8

My friend and colleague Bob Sutton and I continue to be amazed (and a little depressed) at the ongoing popularity of his landmark book “The No Asshole Rule.” It seems that, as Ron Boire is fond of reminding us, CEOs are people, too. Somehow, it is quite possible to become a very senior leader without a corresponding and necessary amount of emotional awareness.

Visiting pity city

You really don’t want to be a leader featured in a video that goes viral for all the wrong reasons. That’s what happened to Andi Owen, CEO of MillerKnoll, the iconic office furniture company. As reported by Fast Company, a leaked video featured her berating employees for asking about their bonuses. “Don’t ask about, What are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus? Get the damn $26 million,” says Owen, apparently attempting to motivate her team to reach a corporate goal. “I had an old boss who said to me one time, ‘You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave Pity City!”

Owen, of course, is not exactly visiting pity city herself. As reported by NPR, Owen’s pay package includes incentive-based compensation. For the fiscal year ending in May 2022, she made $3.9 million on top of her fixed salary of $1.1 million.

Tony Guadagni, a senior principal at the consulting firm Gartner, put it succinctly, “I think in a time like this, where the news cycle has been dominated by inflation for 18 months, where employees feel their paychecks not going as far as they used to — organizational leadership would be wise to be sensitive to that.”

The backlash was immediate — a clip of Owen’s statements went viral, she earned the disapproval of the Twitterverse and pretty rapidly went into damage-control mode, issuing one of those non-apology apologies for what she hoped would be a motivating statement that didn’t exactly have the desired effect. Even worse, employees report that it was suggested that they might get fired for speaking out about the CEO’s comments. The tone of the apology was a tad different than that of her video comments…

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.