Apparently, I’m the only one who finds it odd that Glenn Tilton would be invited to speak as the keynote presenter at a Kellogg conference on turnarounds.
Tilton led the recent United Airlines turnaround, one of the most controversial turnarounds in history. He drew a salary of nearly $40 million after canceling pensions for over 20,000 workers and bringing the stock price up to… almost where it was before he took over. He presides over an airline that is notorious for systematically using political clout to stifle innovation and for punishing its best customers with onerous policies, nonsensical pricing, and less sensical fees.
Should United be discussed at the turnaround conference? Absolutely. Should Tilton be the keynote? Absolutely not. Keynote speakers speak with legitimacy because they are asked by the host organization to open the event. His performance isn’t even debatable—it’s poor. That Kellogg would confer any legitimacy to Tilton—even implied—is a big FAIL.
Apparently, I stand alone in feeling that Tilton’s presence as a keynote is a bit misplaced. Here are the rebuttals I get, and why I’m scratching my head over this whole thing:
• ”Having him as a keynote ensures a meaningful discussion.” ??That statement is backward: having him as a keynote ensures a carefully manicured soliloquy. There is a distinct difference in the depth of discussion possible in a group of 6 as opposed to a group of 20… and I can promise that the potential depth possible in a group of 100+ is substantially less still.
• ”You can ask tough—yet respectful—questions during the Q&A” ??Technically, this is true. But decorum dictates that putting someone on the spot in front of a large audience is disrespectful, especially when the person on the receiving end is an invited guest of the same institution that is charging you admission. This is a strong enough norm to squelch all but the rudest of audience members. If you do want to ask a tough question, the way to do so in front of a crowd is to provide the questionee with a way to save face… which pretty much negates the purpose of asking the tough question, unless the point of asking it is to hear your own voice.
• “His salary is a moot point, since that’s what the market rate for turnaround CEOs is… how could United entice him to come otherwise?” ??This is a common argument. A brief in this month’s HR Magazine indicates that CEO compensation rose across every category from 2006 to 2007 (using data from ExecuNet), with the increase attributed to the war for talent. Meanwhile, according to Booz Allen, CEO turnover hit record levels in 2005, with 35% of US CEO departures being involuntary. Apparently, if there is a war for talent, it seems to be due to Boards’ insistence on overlooking the questionable performance records of the small pool of candidates they circulate with one another. Am I to believe that there aren’t 100′s of individuals in business who are as capable as our current crop of CEOs and who wouldn’t jump at the chance to take the helm of a company at a fraction of the going rate? Am I to believe that the risks associated with placing an “unknown” in a top spot are so great that a “known quantity”–even a mediocre one–can command an astounding premium just to insulate the Board from such “risks”? Remember, the hurdle rate is 35%! This argument sounds to me more like the defense of a bubble than like rational thinking.
I do see Tilton’s appeal. On the surface, he looks great. But digging just a little bit uncovers a number of questions that I think demonstrate his involvement is better at the committee level than the keynote level. I would expect an institution as fine as my alma mater to do such digging, and to lead the charge in asking the tough questions rather than making it difficult for such questions to be aired. Where is the turnaround leader who led by example? Who bore personal sacrifices commensurate to those he demanded of others? Where is the leader who accepts that his first job in turning around a company is taking a morally and financially responsible approach to his contract negotiation?
Let’s get that leader in as the keynote.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.