Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 1, 2023.
What CEOs say and the tone in which they say it can be watched and critiqued by the world in today’s social media environment. An April 19 YouTube video of Andi Owen, CEO of high-end office furniture company MillerKnoll, went viral due to the tone in which she scolded her employees during an online video meeting.
In the video, Owen is giving a motivational talk to her employees in the face of a decline in business. She states that one of the questions [submitted beforehand] is, “How can we stay motivated if we’re not going to get a bonus?’ Owen starts out strong, saying in the right tone, “The most important thing we can do right now is focus on things that we can control. None of us could have predicted COVID, none of us could have predicted supply chain [failures]… What we can do … is provide the best customer service we can … Treat each other well. Be kind. Be respectful. Focus on the future because it will be bright … We’re not going to be here forever. It’s going to get better. So lead, lead by example. Treat people well.”
So far so good. Owen is motivational to this point. Then she says in an angry tone of voice, scolding her employees, “Don’t ask about what are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus. Get the damn $26 million (Obviously, the goal to reach bonus payments). Spend your time and effort thinking about the $26 million we need and not thinking about what we’re going to do if we don’t get a bonus, alright? Can I get some commitment for that?”
Owen then says, “I had an old boss … who said, ‘you can visit pity city, but you can’t live there.’ So people, leave pity city. Let’s get it done.”
As a former CEO, I find nothing wrong with the entirety of Owen’s comments except for the tone in which she challenged her employees to achieve the $26 million bonus threshold and how she made her “pity city” comments.
Owen should have delivered her bonus comments in a calm tone and with empathy, acknowledging the importance of bonus payments to the employees. She could have delivered her message about the need to leave “pity city” in a positive manner, rather than in a negative way. What a leader says and the tone in which they say it can impact future communications and how they’re perceived by employees.
Owen’s comments were heavily reported in the news and on social media. It’s been reported that her video has been viewed on Twitter over 27 million times.
These are just a few of the headlines about Owen’s comments:
- The Wall Street Journal: “A rallying cry or a rant? ‘Pity city’ CEO comments show perils of video meetings.”
- Forbes: “When the CEO ruins the employment relationship.”
- NPR: “‘Leave pity city,’ MillerKnoll CEO tells staff who asked whether they’d lose bonuses.”
- Inc: “This CEO went viral for criticizing her employees—then, she apologized. It teaches 3 huge lessons in emotional intelligence.”
The Holland [Michigan] Sentinel reported that employees were threatened if they went public with Owen’s comments. An employee said, “We have a meeting at the beginning of every shift. Last night the comments were brought up in the meeting and [management] said if anybody spoke out it wouldn’t be good for them and they could be terminated.”
Kris Marubio, MillerKnoll VP of Communications, responded to reports that the comment was made. She said, “The first thing I would say is nobody has been directed to do that. It’s not a company policy, it’s not something that we’re doing. So, that’s wrong and false.”
After the backlash to Owen’s comments, she wrote an email to her employees which appeared in Vice. She wrote in part: “As a leader, I try to always pick the right words and tone to inspire and motivate this incredible team. I want to be transparent and empathetic, and as I continue to reflect on this instance, I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive. What I’d hoped would energize the team to meet a challenge we’ve met many times before landed in a way that I did not intend and for that I am sorry.”
The lesson for all leaders: Watch what you say and how you say it. It impacts how you are viewed by your employees, and what you say might wind up on social media for the world to see.
Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.