The rise and fall of CEOs has become a confusing and troublesome subject for us in recent years. Whom do we trust? Whom do we ceremoniously eviscerate? In olden days it was a novelty to hear about an executive officer who had cooked his company's books. But I have it on excellent authority that the fate of disgraced business leaders will soon be decided by a panel of irate stockholders on reality TV's hottest new offering. Eat your heart out, Simon Cowell.
My job recruiting corporate chiefs has become trickier as well. Take interviewing, for example. The red tape at airports can be a headache, but it's nothing compared to getting through security at federal prisons. I found one former business leader in a reflective mood the other day and asked him: How could you do it? How could you abuse the public trust like that? He answered me with refreshing candor: "What's the question again?" I didn't have time to explain before he had to get back to laundry detail.
During my next visit to Club Fed (of the Poconos), my new acquaintance and I talked about the betrayal of innocent shareholders. He caressed his tennis racquet wistfully, shaking his head in disbelief. "Do you think we invented off-shore limited partnerships and interest-free loans last week?" he asked. "Look - what do you suppose investors really want? They want to see those 401Ks re-inflate and they don't care how it's done! That's the true meaning of fiduciary responsibility, my friend. When you do it for them, you're a genius. When you don't, that's when they indict! Talk about a thankless profession...I'd be better off playing for the Cubs."
He had me on the ropes, I must admit. Maybe --just maybe -- he and his swaggering, defiant, unapologetic and supremely self-assured friends were...right. In fact, I was starting to feel a bit guilty for believing "malfeasance" was such a terrible thing after all. Geez, it's not like he ever took his eyes off the bottom line!
It's hard watching our once-trusted corporate moguls led off in handcuffs, particularly after elevating them to the status of Hindu gods. What went wrong with the system? All we wanted was a little triple-digit growth! Presumably no one was supposed to peek behind the curtain - or ever need to. Even pillars of the conservative media were caught up in the frenzy. Don't forget that Fortune named Enron "America's Most Innovative Company" for five consecutive years.
In the current environment, reference checking has taken on a whole new level of significance. It's not just about leadership and teamwork or the ability to attract and retain talented people anymore. It's about whether someone has been able to keep his paws out of the cookie jar. Some senior executives bristle at the intrusiveness of thorough background investigations. Those who are brave enough to provide references for business associates are looking down the double barrel of Say Too Much, Get in Trouble and Say Too Little, Get in Trouble. No pressure there. And yet we absolutely need to know if our next CFO does most of his banking in the Cayman Islands.
Perhaps nothing is more irksome to us as Americans than the bald ingratitude of those we grant celebrity badges. Whether it's Bernie Madoff or Martha Stewart, we expect a little appreciation, damn it, and maybe just a greeting card come December. It's about respect, isn't it? We don't like being treated as if we're stupid. Or worse, as outsiders. Hey, let us in on some of those juicy option deals and we'll forget the whole thing!
So let's not be too hard on the boys. They're not really bad boys -- they're just high-spirited -- and a lot of these wacky misadventures go with the pedigree like olives go with martinis. If things get too messy, somebody will be around soon enough to clean it up. And in the end, rest assured that justice will prevail. Keep in mind, though, that there are two kinds of justice: Justice for the rich...and justice for the super-rich.