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Board Room Viruses

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Dear Monte:

As we all know, it’s the mean season out there. Investors are nervous, the markets are shaky, the economy is slowing ... and your fellow CEOs are dropping like e-tail sites the day after another bad Christmas.

John McDonough of Newel Rubbermaid? Bounced. Lucent’s Richard McGinn? Unplugged. Gillette’s Michael Hawley? Cut. British Air’s Robert Ayling had his wings clipped, P&G’s Durk Jager was hung out to dry, DaimlerChrysler’s James Holden got recalled, Aetna’s Richard Huber was canceled, and Mattel’s Jill Barad was told to pick up her toys and go home. Yes, it’s DefCon 5 time in corner office suites all across America. In fact, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas (isn’t that a wonderful name for an outplacement firm?), more than 350 Sun Kings were broomed by their boards in third quarter 2000 alone.

So what, then, does this mean for my primo client, Monte Stellar, CEO extraordinaire?

On the one hand, the good news here is that none of these talented, smart, and otherwise capable CEOs is likely to be interested in replacing you at Amalgamated Smelting. To use your own quote: “I’d sooner be hand-counting votes in Florida.” (And to this end, as per your instructions, I’ve put out feelers to my counterparts at the above-mentioned companies to see about putting your name on the shortlist for CEO.)

On the other hand, the bad news is that AmSmelt’s board seems to have caught the same deadly virus: They want profits. And thanks to Jack Welch, they want you to name an heir apparent, pronto. My solution here is twofold:

First, keep lowering expectations. But do it in new and novel ways: Instead of blaming missed earnings on “political unrest in Asia,” try “political unrest in America.” (My staff is working up talking points that’ll not only reflect the U.S. presidential election, but also global warming, Russian submarines, and genetically engineered corn. Don’t laugh: Where there’s a will, there’s a way to blame anything.)

Then there’s the heir apparent. There are three safe alternatives:

1) THE TECH TYRO. Determined to drag the company into the 21st century, he’ll squander millions, alienate everyone, and submit his resignation in 18 months by e-mail (with PowerPoint graphics) when he jumps to a “more progressive” outfit.

2) MR.(OR MS.) GROOM. Perfectly coiffed, affable on the surface — but seething with ambition underneath. The board will be the last to find out the truth about Mr. Walk-the-Talk — usually about six months after he’s got you fired, setting the stage for your triumphant (and higher compensated) return.

3) THE ALMOST INVISIBLE MAN. The safest choice. A lifer. Grateful, unambitious, nonthreatening. Promoted from within, preferably from accounting or manufacturing, he’d never dream of thwarting you — for fear of thwarting his own future, dim as it may be.

Remember: The key here is to be magnanimous. The more you insist no one is irreplaceable, the more you’ll be perceived as irreplaceable. (Especially when the word leaks out that you’ve been on the shortlists for the top spots at Gillette, P&G, Aetna, Mattel, Lucent, and British Airways.)

Then there’s my POV on all this: True, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But with a consummately conducted and finely orchestrated PR campaign, you can fool enough of the important people to keep you in your job at least through next August.

I’ll be in touch —

The Biffster.

PS: Re Junior’s first film. 1) Yes, I’m aware that I suggested you finance it. 2) No, I wasn’t aware that it’s about a megalomaniac CEO and his second wife. 3) No, I wouldn’t consider legal action, as this may only serve to get his mother involved. 4) According to a friend at Miramax, 99% of these things are never released in theaters anyway. 5) If it does get into a film festival, I’d suggest you stand in the corner, brimming with pride, and announce, “He’s very inventive. Just like his father.”

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