Calacanis' AOL resignation: A new era of brutal candor for big companies?

Calacanis' AOL resignation: A new era of brutal candor for big companies?

Summary: As of the time that I started writing this blog post,it's the top story on Techmeme right now. If you're reading this post to get some other insight into Jason Calacanis the man or AOL the company now that Calacanis (founder of Weblogs, Inc.

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TOPICS: Hewlett-Packard
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As of the time that I started writing this blog post,it's the top story on Techmeme right now. If you're reading this post to get some other insight into Jason Calacanis the man or AOL the company now that Calacanis (founder of Weblogs, Inc. which was eventually acquired by AOL) has stepped down from his post as head of the company's Netscape division, you've come to the wrong place. For that bit of analysis, there are probably already several million posts hanging on that great bulletin board known as the blogosphere. The news is pretty simple. AOL CEO and chairman Jon Miller got the boot (and found it out through third parties rather than his masters). Calacanis, who, judging by his blog about Miller's firing, was very close to the now ex-CEO, resigned.

Everyone seems to have a take on this executive shuffle. But the one that interests me the most has nothing to do with what was happening behind the scenes. It has to do with Calacanis' candor. When the New York Times came knocking: He shot straight from the hip. Wrote the Times' Saul Hansell of the news (registration required):

In recent months, Mr. Calacanis said he was considering leaving AOL to start a new company...."I’m not inclined to start over with a new guy," Mr. Calacanis said in an interview on Thursday. As for what to make of the treatment of Mr. Miller, who discovered he was being replaced after a reporter called AOL asking about [Randy Falco's] appointment [to Miller's post], Mr. Calacanis said only: "I’m perplexed. Why now?"

He was also pretty candid in the aforementioned blog post when he referred to the day Miller got fired as "a very sad day."

To you old school guys out there -- you know who you are -- the ones that expect everybody to keep their lips sealed when this sort of stuff happens in order to protect the greater good -- welcome to the new school. Remember when HP let go of Carly Fiorina? It wasn't until recently that she's become more outspoken about that. Even put some stuff in her book (Yo Jason: Need an editor?). Ask Bruce Perens about how HP sent him packing a few years back and you'll finish two bottles of wine before he even gets warmed up. But such outpsoken individuals have traditionally been few and far between. That's going to change real soon.

In the old school, there are some things you don't say. But, with the new kids rising up through the ranks (and the tools like blogs that they have access to), there's apparently nothing that should be held back. You're allowed to say "Why now?" In fact, most kids are cutting their teeth on this new form of open candor on MySpace. So open are some kids on MySpace that the authorities have been able to keep some violent crimes from happening.  

No holds barred. Brutal honesty. Candor. Shooting from the hip. Call it want you want. The veil of secrecy that often cloaks corporate culture -- especially during times of change -- is about be blown away by a new generation of open communicators one of which is Calacanis (who has always been known to speak his mind publicly and privately, add some swagger please). Think about it. Since when did corporate America become like professional sports where executives openly talk about leaving their employer while they're still employed? Under the old school rules, that's grounds for a pink slip. Calacanis  was a senior VP. That sort of talk is material information in the investment community.  

Like I said earlier, I'm not going to make a judgement call one way or the other about what's happening behind the scenes, and what can now be said about about Calacanis' future or AOL's. But it's this sort of candor -- and quite honestly, I think Calacanis hasn't been nearly as open as he usually is (even in today's taping of the Gillmor Gang)  -- that public and investor relations personnel have nightmares about. 

Quite often, just to control the spin before the spin even starts, departing personnel who know a lot are paid to keep their mouths shut. That's old school. New school is where those who are resigning or being fired give their former masters the finger while telling them to keep their money. I'm not saying that's what Calacanis did. But, in the new generation rising up through the ranks, there's a whole class of knowledge workers that will have no compunction about letting everyone know what they really think. In fact, this "group therapy" trend isn't tied to depatures. Just as has been the case with professional sports, there are plenty of people who publicly share their feelings about their employer while they're stilled employed by that employer.  Some do it under their own names (Perens actually had this right to speak against HP codified into his contract with the IT vendor) while others find anonymous avenues like fuckedcompany.com to vent their frustrations.

I'm undecided on whether this sort of transparency could be a good or bad thing for businesses. I can see where managers could end up thinking twice before they do something stupid. On the other hand, that sort of "oversight" can paralyze a company. Not to mention the fact that trade secrets could get divulged and how it's difficult if not impossible to separate truth from fiction.

Businesses will probably respond to this trend by muzzling their employees on the day of arrival, rather than the day of departure. There'll be some standard form in the human resources department that, once you've signed it, keeps the threat of a ruinous lawsuit over your head should you decide to sing like a canary. These handcuffs will very likely be snuck into the pile of paperwork you must sign during your employee orientation. Should you sign it? Maybe it depends on what sort of bills you have to pay or if you have a family that needs to eat. Given the way startups are being acquired left and right, some "new employees" will get "grandfathered" in. But others won't be so lucky. 

Meanwhile, Corporate America, you've been put on warning. Meet the new boss. It's ain't gonna be the same as the old boss. 

Topic: Hewlett-Packard

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3 comments
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  • Big company management

    You don't understand the nature of big organizations. The Internet is not going to change how big organizations such as Time-Warner operate. Top management will never show candor about anything, certainly not about major personnel decisions, certainly not about executive compensation or perks or internal dissension. Organizations follow tribal rules which are endemic in humankind and will not be eradicated no matter what information technologies exist.

    It is unfortunate that Mr. Miller was canned without knowing it ahead of the news media, but he is an experienced executive who knows how the game is played.
    Wendell Murray
  • How much is integrity worth?

    I ask clients to sign a contract that accepts my right to criticize them publicly if I feel it's warranted. They sign because they value my integrity and independence.

    Does that make me unemployable? Yes, by companies that can't adjust to the new climate. But such attitudes are outdated today. Openness and integrity are the litmus test for corporate success today. It needs careful management (I don't shoot my mouth off for the sake of it) but it's an adjustment that businesses today have to make.
    phil wainewright
  • Transparency is Only Good

    The best disinfectant is a little bit of sunlight. Companies who admit mistakes, challege assumptions, and rage against "groupthink" will do better for their shareholders and employees.

    The new "Peanut Butter Manifesto" by Garlinghouse at Yahoo! will help that company jolt itself out of its malaise.

    However, internal employees can only go so far. While Garlinghouse has a number of excellent points, Yahoo!'s founders and board must go a few steps further to effect this needed change. I outline these in the following "Open Letter to Jerry Yang and David Filo":

    http://breakoutperformance.blogspot.com/2006/11/open-letter-to-jerry-yang-and-david.html

    Thanks,

    Eric
    ejackson_ca