I was with a client last week, the CEO of a public company. I have known and worked with this person for about 10 years. Although the company is on solid financial footing, the current business climate has forced him to make some tough decisions including layoffs, elimination of the 401K match and everyone working harder with more worries, fewer hands on deck and fewer resources. So did this hardworking CEO take a bonus in 2008 because he "deserved" it? Nope. He asked for a significant cut. He didn’t want to and the board didn’t want him to. But he knew if he was asking his people to sacrifice, then he had to lead the way. Remember that word, "lead?" This man is a leader in word and deed. By acting in this way, he communicates to his staff, his employees, his shareholders and the public that he cares and that they’re all in this together.
He gets it.
In hearing and reading about the unbelievable selfishness and tone-deafness of the people in the financial services industry, as they earn and spend profligately in the face of billions delivered to them by taxpayers, I asked my client what he thought they were up to. He threw up his hands and shrugged his shoulders, saying, "Beats me." It’s dumbfounding. It’s infuriating.
Naturally, the spin has begun. The $18 billion paid in bonuses this year were actually "commissions." Okay, but commissions on what? Those banks and institutions lost money. Then we hear that if compensation is cut too drastically, the "best and brightest" will go elsewhere. Really? Where would that be? (And didn’t the so-called best and brightest get us into this mess?) The thing that bugs me the most, though, is the fiction that the people doing all the complaining (who are not in financial services) simply don’t understand how the compensation system works. Hmmm, they collected phantom profits for years, nearly destroyed our financial system (or perhaps have – jury is still out), caused hundreds of thousands of layoffs and decimated most people’s life savings. And now they want to continue earning a similar wage because why? Oh, I think we understand just fine, thank you.
And it isn’t only the financial fat cats who are sipping at the trough of public money. Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and HHS nominee Tom Daschle don’t get it either. I was incredulous listening to Geithner, an expert in finance for heaven’s sake, claim ignorance when pressed on why he didn’t pay certain taxes until his nomination was imminent. Well, I may be a music major, but I knew to pay my nanny taxes, Mr. Geithner, as well as the fact that I couldn’t claim overnight summer camp as part of our childcare FSA. It’s spelled out in easy-to-understand terms when you get your benefits information every year. And Daschle is just another revolving door politico. Neither of these guys is irreplaceable as we’ll find later on when they resign for "personal" reasons.
It’s time for President Obama to make good on his centerpiece campaign promise to undo "business as usual" and turn up the heat on these goofballs on behalf of us "little people." I am so sick of lame apologies and slaps on the wrists. Why are some of the corrupt and greedy people who got us into this current mess not being prosecuted? And why were these politicians not booted out the minute their transgressions came to light? You work for us, Mr, President. The time for words is over and the time for action has begun.
What does this all communicate? That people with money and power are above the law. They are even above being made to pay for their mistakes while all the rest of us ensure they keep their jobs. That despite all the promises made by Barack Obama and his surrogates during the past two years, he’s just another pol doing "business as usual." Boy, that was fast.
Where is the compassion, empathy? Where is the shame? Is there not a leader among them?
They just don’t get it.
Ruth Sherman Associates LLC / High Stakes Communication / www.ruthsherman.com