By Steve Adubato, PhD
Last year, this column highlighted a really dumb use of e-mail by Cerner Corporation CEO Neal Patterson. Patterson was growing increasingly angry with his employees for what he perceived to be a lack of effort. He thought he was saving time by sending a mass e-mail out to over 400 employees, which in part stated the following:
"We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our 'employees.' The parking lot is sparsely used at 8:00 a.m.; likewise at 5:00 p.m. As managers, you either do not know what your employees are doing; or you do not care… Hell will freeze over before this CEO implements another employee benefit in this culture. I am tabling the promotions until I am convinced that the ones being promoted are the solution, not the problem. If you are the problem, pack your bags. I think this parental type action SUCKS. However, what you are doing as managers, with this company makes me sick...Something is going to change. I am giving you two weeks to fix this. My measurement will be the parking lot. It should be substantially full at 7:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. The pizza man should show up at 7:30 p.m. to feed the starving teams working late...You have two weeks. Tick-tock."
Patterson's e-mail created immediate chaos both within the company and among investors. Some angry employees posted his e-mail on the Yahoo message board. Over two days Cerner stock dropped 25 percent. Patterson tried to retract his original e-mail saying it was taken out of context, but it was too late..
It was easy at the time to blast Neal Patterson. His e-mail was a disaster. Both he and Cerner paid the price. Yet we all know that countless corporate managers and executives make similar mistakes that have serious consequences. But the Cerner story doesn't end here. Instead of continuing to defend his initial reaction, Patterson decided to make a joke of it.
At a highly attended annual Cerner conference, Patterson was the scheduled keynote speaker. Before he addressed the audience, comedian Mark Russell told lots of jokes about Patterson's e-mail. The audience roared. Cerner employees made references to the company store selling cardboard cars to put in the parking lot in an effort to fool their CEO. Right before Patterson addressed the audience, a pizza man arrived and delivered five pizzas, poking fun at Patterson's pizza line in the original e-mail. None of this corporate hijinks could have happened without Patterson's O.K.
Here's the point…While all of us make mistakes, not everyone has the character and confidence to take responsibility to poke fun at themselves. Real leaders know how to get past such errors in judgement and let others know that they are aware they've made a mistake. Relax, have a good laugh at your own expense, and move on. Most people will appreciate your candor. It will create a more comfortable and productive work environment. The longer you refuse to admit the obvious, the longer the issue or controversy lingers.
In business as in life, it's not only what happens that matters, it's how you handle it. Neal Patterson chose to take responsibility and apologize for his actions. He allowed himself to show his vulnerability to his employees and the outside world. His company and his reputation are better off for it. What was the last big or small mistake you made at work? How did you handle it? Thinking back, how would you handle it if it happened today? Write to me.