AOL’s CEO and the Risk of Authenticity


AOL CEO Tim Armstrong impulsively fires an employee, Abel Lenz, last Friday for filming Mr. Armstrong during a conference call delivering a tough message about upcoming cost reduction and layoffs. Then the CEO follows-up with a memo of apology. Not surprisingly, the media gets all over Mr. Armstrong describing him as “going viral.” then, perhaps worse, backing down. And the debate begins: Was the firing bold or wrong? Was the memo appropriate or wimpy?

Commentators point out that if an American business icon like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates had taken the same initial action it might have been characterized as bold and courageous. Not so with a CEO whose company is struggling for survival. Indeed, we all can hear Donald Trump saying “you’re fired” over and over. Remember also that Ronald Reagan fired a whole generation of air traffic controllers over a labor issue — a decisive moment of his presidency.

Let’s take a step back. We are not the media and we are not writing to sell sensational headlines. Mr. Armstrong is leading a troubled company through difficult change, trying to rescue a situation that he did not create. His open, honest and authentic conference call was, by all accounts, clear, direct and honest. It was decisive. Just the behavior we want to see in a CEO. It must have been awful to be thrown off stride at such a moment by an unwanted employee cameraman. So, the CEO acted impulsively and later regretted it. He did the right thing sending his authentic memo of apology and, in so doing, preserving just the credibility with his workforce that his open conference call was designed to show.

Cudos to Mike Armstrong. He has a job to do, and it’s not pleasing the pundits!

Richard Stanger

Author: Richard Stanger

Richard Stanger is a Senior Human Resources consultant and Executive Coach, who brings over 25 years of global business leadership and strategic talent experience from Global Fortune 500 corporations. Richard partners with business leaders to rapidly identify and develop talent solutions that enable their organizational objectives.

This post has 2 Comments

  1. Former AOLer on August 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Are you joking?? This is just the latest, and most public, of Tim’s failings as a CEO….he’s a master at blaming others and deflecting questions about his poor management and decisions.

    • Richard Stanger
      Richard Stanger on August 15, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’m saying that here he did the right thing. Not to apologize just to act tough doesn’t get you anywhere with your people after his visible public reaction. He did the authentic thing. Regards, Richard