The Fall and Rise of David Pottruck
I just finished reading your article on David Pottruck, and I enjoyed it immensely (My Brilliant Failure). Pottruck spoke to my class at Wharton during the summer of 2002. (I was in the executive MBA program.) He was still gainfully employed and very successful at the time—but equally as honest. We asked him what he thought his failures were, and he candidly revealed he wasn't proud of his two divorces. I can usually get the majority of what I need in the first few paragraphs, but with your story, I learned as much from beginning to end.
Guy E. Abramovitz
Merion Station, Pennsylvania
Pottruck Doesn't Get It
Your cover story on David Pottruck made me very sad. On one hand, I was impressed and thought Pottruck's insights on his "fall" were wise. I was dumbfounded, though, that his son had to call him on slipping into old priorities after his family had been there for him. His final statement summed up what he hasn't learned through the experience: "Every morning when my feet hit the floor, I had a compelling purpose. Other people were counting on me to fulfill an extraordinarily challenging leadership role that demanded nothing less than the best of me every day." Mr. Pottruck, that describes exactly what parenting is about.
Isn't it significant that the first person Mr. Pottruck called with the news of his lost status was his trusted business colleague and not his family? This seems to reinforce the (sad) truth that the company was his real "family." This is further highlighted by the fact that his son called him up with deep hurt and anger, because Mr. Pottruck still did not have time for him after losing his job. My heart went out to both of them.
This is not Mr. Pottruck's fault. This is the power of a system that promotes idolatry of an illusion, that our meaning/purpose/identity is found in externals. It's our responsibility to change this corporate-societal expectation. Because in the end, being with his son is all that really matters. I compliment Mr. Pottruck for the courage to let his story be told.
Dr. Royce Fitts
I was confused by your David Pottruck story. It wasn't clear whether this was supposed to be a motivational/instructional piece for people who have lost their jobs, or a want ad for an overpaid CEO. It was very difficult to empathize—and certainly hard to sympathize—with someone who was cut loose with both a multimillion-dollar parachute and a loyal assistant, Colleen Bagan-McGill, willing to sacrifice her own family life to help him recover.
I have a very close friend who was recently laid off with no severance package at all. He has no personal assistant to do all the legwork to find him employment again. There are no vacations, no offers to lecture, no board seats, and certainly no huge cushion of money to help him ride through this "tough time." He has only an ever increasing debt load. The real article-worthy people are those such as my friend and the Bagan-McGills behind those men with the golden parachutes.
Greensboro, North Carolina
It Can Happen to You
Finally, an article that made sense of being released from a senior management position. Mostly what hit home for me was the damage to David Pottruck's self-confidence. I was the West Coast managing director for US Bancorp Piper Jaffray's fixed-income capital-markets group a few years ago. When Firstar Bank and US Bancorp merged some years ago, the management direction changed swiftly, and my part on the management flowchart got whited out. I had put my heart and soul into Piper Jaffray for seven years and had been fast-tracked from retail sales and management to institutional management. Then, bang! It was over. This sudden release from my position was a shock. I have moved back into institutional fixed-income sales; however, I still feel my talents as a leader are being wasted. I'd love to hear Mr. Pottruck's views about getting out of the trap of staying in the same industry and what it takes to get back into a leadership position.
San Francisco, California
I had an experience similar to David Pottruck's, in which I lost my job as COO of a private, family-held company. I wasn't part of the family but was promised ownership. I came in one day, and the family decided it didn't want to share with me, so I was the odd man out. Because I had trusted the family, I didn't have an employment contract, and I had to start all over with a young family of my own to provide for.
I can relate to all of the stages described in the article and passed through all of them. Fortunately, I had several strong people in my life to affirm me as an individual, not who I was as a businessperson. I have since started my own business and feel like I have more control over my own destiny.
Cowards Who Should Be Heroes
As a Wal-Mart associate and shareholder, I disagree with your characterization of our CEO, Lee Scott, as one of your Cowards of the Year. You cite his dismissal of Jared Bowen, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower, as a sign of cowardice. Removing several key executives from the organization wasn't an easy decision, especially in this tough economic environment when our company needs people with experience and histories of strong performance. He made difficult decisions knowing that those associates have many supporters within the company who would disagree.
Mr. Scott realized that it's important for our customers, our shareholders, and our more than 1 million associates to have faith in our management team and to know that everyone is held to the same high ethical standards. He has consistently praised associates and suppliers who use the open-door policy to raise their concerns. In my own experience, I have seen him address issues that I've brought to his attention. As far as I'm concerned, standing up for high ethical standards should've earned Lee Scott a place on your list of the courageous few of 2004-2005.
I was very disappointed when I read your "Cowards of the Year" article. I would like your writer to trade places with United Air Lines CEO Glenn Tilton for one day to understand how complex it is to manage an airline with 62,000 employees. I'm an account manager at United, and even if you paid me Mr. Tilton's $4.5 million compensation package, I wouldn't take the job. Would you do it? In regards to the pension obligations, he had the guts to do something about it. His predecessors didn't do anything; they just let the deficit keep increasing. It was a very tough decision—but without a resolution, perhaps 62,000 people would be unemployed by now.
Six Sigma by Any Other Name Is Still Sweet
Toyota doesn't know what Six Sigma refers to only because the term Six Sigma was coined by Motorola as a way to refer to what Toyota has been doing for more than 50 years (Six Sigma Stigma?). It's easy to believe that Toyota people don't use the term, but to suggest that Toyota doesn't use Six Sigma-like methods as part of the "Toyota Production System" is at least disingenuous.
St. Paul, Minnesota
The True Art of the Off-site
I was disappointed by the simplistic way you portrayed successful off-sites (The Art of the Off-site). In my 24 years as an event developer for midsized and large corporate clients, I was always more interested in how events could affect business outcomes than in how memorable the events could be. Memorable events score well in exit surveys, providing kudos to the host and planner, but they do little to alter attendee attitudes or change behavior.
Long Beach, California
The reference to Anne Szostak in Preparing for Act II was in error.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.