The Folly of Believing What You Read

September 19, 2011

Some time ago we posted a blog titled ‘So you REALLY want to be a CEO?’ (http://www.stonewoodgroup.com/blog/article/123/) which looked at the human costs of climbing the upper rungs of the management ladder.

The blog was based on a series of articles immediately following the ‘resignation’ of Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler. All of these articles presented a cautionary tale of life in the fast lane, the long hours, the extensive global travel, and the shareholder pressures that accompany an uncooperative stock price. They also spoke poignantly of the physical and emotional toll that such unrelenting pressure took on the Pfizer CEO who eventually resigned in order to attend to his family and health.

As it turns out however, much of this narrative may not have been true. A more recent article in Fortune Magazine titled “Inside Pfizer’s Palace Coup” (http://features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2011/07/28/pfizer-jeff-kindler-shakeup/) paints a very different picture of Kindler and the circumstances around his departure from the pharmaceutical giant. It asserts that rather than resigning, Kindler was in fact ‘resigned’ by a frustrated board of directors coping with repeated stumbles by Kindler and a mounting insurrection from below. Far from being an innocent victim of circumstances, the Fortune Magazine article describes Kindler as an ambitious, untrusting, aggressive, blunt, combative, insecure, over-sensitive individual who ‘spun his management team like a top’ and second-guessed everyone while struggling to make decisions of his own. It chronicles some of Kindler’s errors including his hiring of a ‘toxic’, $900k per year HR chief who divided rather than united the management team and who commuted to work by helicopter while executing large scale layoffs. This same individual had performed similarly at a previous employer who had released her from her duties (so much for Pfizer’s world-class hiring practices). The article speaks of internal squabbling and increasing dissatisfaction with the firm’s overall leadership. In the end, according to this article, it was a revolt and not the stress of the job that did Kindler in.

The Fortune Magazine article is instructive in at least two ways. First, it suggests that even the biggest and so-called best companies in the world are vulnerable to the same hiring and leadership issues that beset small companies. Secondly it is a reminder that one should be cautious about taking news reports at face value. Fortune Magazine reports that Kindler’s exit package included $16mm in cash and stock and $6.9mm in retirement benefits. It fails to mention that he appears to have also received the generous use of the Pfizer PR department to ‘spin’ his departure so that he was a casualty of war rather the instrument of his own demise.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777