Skip to main content

AOL boss blew it in public firing

By Marilyn Puder-York, Special to CNN
updated 9:41 AM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marilyn Puder-York: AOL chief apparently publicly fired employee on conference call
  • She says leaders need to manage their emotions, even under trying circumstances
  • She says employee may have been annoying, but boss should have dealt with it privately
  • Writer: CEO should do damage control: employees respect accountability, humility

Editor's note: Marilyn Puder-York is an executive and leadership coach to CEOs and the author of "The Office Survival Guide."

(CNN) -- On Friday, AOL chief Tim Armstrong apparently fired AOL Patch.com Creative Director Abel Lenz during a conference call with some 1,000 employees listening.

The CEO was explaining changes at Patch that would reduce the number of sites in its local news network from 900 to 600. During the call, according to a number of sources, Armstrong told Lenz to put his camera down and then, in the same breath, told him he was fired. Then Armstrong resumed his conference call.

It's hard to know from the audio of his remarks -- which rocketed around online after the incident, drawing mainly derision and shock -- the complete circumstances of the exchange. On the face of it, though, it didn't sound so good.

Was it good leadership?

Marilyn Puder-York
Marilyn Puder-York

One of the top capabilities for adults in leadership roles is the ability to manage emotions even under the most trying circumstances. This self-awareness and self-management is part of being emotionally intelligent.

Leaders' behavior has tremendous impact on others. Not only does it affect morale and productivity, it also provides the behavioral model for others who look up to the person in power. CEOs more than most have to manage the elegant balance of communicating tough messages in a straightforward manner but with a respectful style. They are representing themselves and the culture of their organizations to the world.

There was a better way for Armstrong to have expressed his frustration at Lenz. Armstrong was conducting a conference call to a huge number of employees, and he was trying to deliver a tough message to them. No doubt Lenz's taking photos of him during this call irritated and might have distracted Armstrong from his focused message.

As humans, we all get stressed, have rough days and get triggered emotionally by the behavior of others. In fact, those of us with the highest standards of performance tend to have the strongest reactions. But that doesn't give license for us to react impulsively.

Would we say to a colleague who is talking nonsense: "You are stupid?" Likely not. If we needed to convey dissatisfaction with an employee's conduct, we do it privately so as not to humiliate the colleague and make ourselves appear heartless to others.

At the same time, Armstrong had the right to feel annoyed. He was trying to give a difficult talk.

What should he have done? Remembering his role as a leader, he should have sternly told Lenz his behavior was distracting and that if he didn't stop, there would be consequences. If Lenz became insubordinate, Armstrong should not have lost his temper but should have made a decision to deal with the behavior at a later time. And that's after he did his due diligence with his human resources department. And he would advise Lenz that a confrontation was not productive while he was conducting a conference call, but that there would be discussions in private.

The outcome might have been the same but would have seemed to follow from reasonable judgment and not a knee-jerk emotional reaction.

I don't know the CEO in question and his relationship with the employee. There may be much more going on than we know at this point. But given Armstrong's leadership role, I would coach him to be accountable for what may have appeared to the listeners to be impulsive behavior and to do some damage control.

Most people are forgiving when they know their leaders are human. But they respect and are inspired by the leader who demonstrates humility, accountability and willingness to admit and learn from mistakes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marilyn Puder-York.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT