That Time the CEO Said He Wanted to Kill My Cat With a Golf Club

I'll bet you are expecting a clever metaphor or play on words.

Nope. This is a true story.

In 2003, I worked for a small startup that just replaced our founder with a guy who was supposed to be able to bring our company public. Everyone was extremely excited because we all were promised that he was going to get us the best value for the company and make our stock options soar--images of retiring early all danced in our heads.

I was excited too. I was putting in a lot of hours to make sure our engineers and sales team had the tools they needed to get us to the next level. I had exactly the same motivation. Maximum stock value.

The problem was, this guy they hired was kind of an ass.

During the first few weeks of his tenure two people I really liked and respected packed up their desks and left (but they were sure to buy their options on the way out the door--he was an ass but even they thought he was going to make rain).

Because he replaced my old boss, he became my new boss. And because he was my new boss, I had hopes that if I gained his trust, things would go well for me--that somehow whatever happened to the other guys who walked out was because they butted heads with him.

I heard him being described as "Machiavellian" in his style. Still, I thought I could win him over with hard work and attentiveness.

During our first one on one he asked me what I got for Christmas. I mentioned the silly gift my sister gave me (The Pit-Tuba-an instrument that when placed in your arm pit and blew though made a bunch of very organic sounds). He didn't seem impressed so I asked what he got.

"My life."

What? No Pit-Tuba?

He then went into a lengthy discourse about his religious convictions. Was he taking me into his confidence? Trying to give me a testimony? I wasn't sure. I listened politely and said I was agnostic. I also said I still thought my Pit-Tuba was pretty cool.

Over the coming months he had lots of non specific feedback such as "be proactive" and said that "people" didn't think I had enough urgency. When I asked for who was giving this feedback and why they didn't come to me he said "everyone" says it and they won't say it to me because are too afraid to talk to me.

I wasn't sure where his behavior was coming from--was it because I said I was agnostic? Was it the fact that my lesbianism put him off? He never referenced those things so I had no idea. I was working long hours and thought my relationships with my peers were in good shape. I tried to stay positive. I was sure that I was on the verge of gaining his trust and changing his opinion.

One evening, before I left work to travel to our new office to do an install, I responded to the CEO's request that I stop by his desk. He told me I would now be reporting to the Finance executive and that I didn't need to talk to him anymore--everything would go through my new boss. He then quickly changed the subject and asked how my weekend went. Instead of saying "fine" I said my cat was really sick and I spent the weekend hand feeding him with a syringe.

"I can fix that for you with a six iron."

He was smiling like he though he had said something enormously clever. I felt all the blood leave my face. The conversations happening a couple cubes over abruptly stopped.

I stammered that it sounded like he had never had a pet and quickly left--I was so shocked by what he said I didn't know what to do.

I can't believe I wanted to build trust with this guy. Or that we hired him in the first place!

Needless to say, I left that job as soon as I was able. On my way out I gave my feedback to the remaining founder that the new CEO was going to destroy what they were working hard to create. Founder guy just looked sheepish and muttered something about breaking eggs to make an omelette.

Punchline: The company was acquired a year later at a low valuation--everyone's investment was null.

Ever hand your trust over to someone and then just close your eyes and hope that everything would be ok?

If a spouse or a family member behaved towards us like some executives do, our best friends would be helping us plan our escapes. But for some reason in the workplace, dealing with these toxic turd buckets is seen as an enviable skill--the idea being that if you can win them over, you can win anyone over.

Why would you want to win "anyone" over? For example, I don't want to win over people who are shouters, manipulators or people who would joke about being cruel to animals. I don't need to win anyone like that over for any reason--not even for a pile of really valuable stock.

I think it's fairly obvious that building a company that is only looking to turn a profit leads to some really short sighted thinking. While I think the example in my story is particularly egregious, it isn't uncommon.

The toxic executive or manager is given enormous license to behave however they want while the job of building trust is placed 100% on the employee, their own dignity and humanity taking a back seat (or not coming along at all).

Trust is build in stages by consistent action. The problem is that many people in leadership think they receive a buffer of trust they can spend against--this leads them to taking actions that degrade a resource that is hard to build. Every outburst, every failure to be transparent, every decision that puts people last steals good will and trust.

When trust goes into deficit, you instead build stores of resentment, apathy and disloyalty. Even if you try to "motivate" through fear, if you burn someone bad enough they will leave--checking out on the job or quitting. You can't "fear" an organization to greatness.

What are you doing to build trust? Not just with your peers but through out your organization? Leave a comment--I'd like to hear from you.

Sasha Mobley1 Comment