Lucy Kellaway: AOL’s Tim Armstrong proves obnoxious executives thrive

Seeing him, it is difficult to argue that the most successful leaders are the humble ones

Tim Armstrong: see him on YouTube for a masterclass in how not to talk to staff, how not to motivate and not to lead.  Photograph: Victor J Blue/Bloomberg

Tim Armstrong: see him on YouTube for a masterclass in how not to talk to staff, how not to motivate and not to lead. Photograph: Victor J Blue/Bloomberg

 

Tim Armstrong is my favourite chief executive. I can’t think of anyone else who has provided me with such rich and varied copy over the years. Since he took over at AOL in 2009 he has got into assorted scrapes, taken off his shoes, put his foot in his mouth, lost his rag, offended mothers, fired someone in public, thrown his weight around, talked a blue streak of guff – while at the same time making more money for shareholders at every turn.

Last week, when he agreed to sell AOL for $4.4 billion, a Forbes contributor called him a “genius”, arguing that the main reason Verizon wanted to buy the company was to get exposure to the brilliance of its chief executive. Mr Armstrong’s bank manager presumably agrees: the man’s personal gain from the deal is put by the Wall Street Journal at $180 million. Yet as Forbes was cheering others were making ruder noises. A blogger on Gawker was writing a post called “A Salute to AOL’s Tim Armstrong, a Real Shitty Boss”.

Many times I have tried to interview this corporate hero/villain in the hope of understanding how one of the least-appealing figures in corporate life could have done so well, but his zealous PRs have come between us. Instead I have had to content myself with listening to him talk, looking at photos and videos, reading his memos and talking to people who have worked for him.

The first stop is his words, which never disappoint in being clumsy, ungrammatical and plain baffling. On various occasions I’ve given him gongs for misuse of language, but he goes on excelling. Last week in a memo to staff he explained: “the deal will game-change the size and scale of AOL’s opportunity”, neglecting to say which opportunity he was talking about, and coining a new verb – to game-change – so offensive I have already decided to give him a prize in my 2015 awards. If that memo left anyone confused, he went on to explain in an interview: “This deal, we feel, is the right deal to go forward. In the go-forward scenario, we plan on doing the deal with Verizon” – thus offering a double helping of “going forward” in a circular arrangement of pure nothingness.

Look! No shoes!

Over on YouTube, there is Mr Armstrong telling CNN how he does it. “Don’t allow loser talk,” he says, eyes boring into the interviewer. He reveals that his dad was a Vietnam veteran who gave his son some uncompromising advice when he took on AOL: “Do whatever it takes to be successful.”

One of the things it takes to be successful is to ignore the feelings of staff. There was the famous way he referred to the two “AOLers” who had “distressed babies”, explaining that the high cost of looking after these infants was partly responsible for changes to the company’s pension scheme.

No holding fire

Yet this headline-grabbing story misses a bigger point about the man. If you listen carefully to the tape of the firing (which I urge you to do), you will notice that the truly awful thing was not merely that he sacked someone in public for nothing. It was the way he talks to employees. A hectoring monologue, in the course of which he twice tells people if they don’t agree with him they can leave right away.

Later, Mr Armstrong explained that the firing was “an emotional response”. Yet his voice tells a different story. He said: “you’re fired – out”, waited a couple of seconds for the offender to scarper, and then resumed the hectoring in precisely the same tone of voice. The control was much more frightening than any emotion.

The clip, though less than three minutes long, is a masterclass in how not to talk to staff, how not to motivate and not to lead. It also provides the moral to this sorry story. Every modern management expert will tell you that chief executives who are arseholes no longer survive. The most successful leaders are supposed to be the humble ones, who listen and take people with them. Mr Armstrong is living proof that this is nonsense. If you enrich your shareholders – which you tend to do if you are hell-bent on succeeding – you can be as nice or as nasty as you like. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)

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