Thain, Kozlowski, Dante and Me

“The Barque of Dante,” Eugene Delacroix

“The Barque of Dante,” Eugene Delacroix


(Frank’s note: I wrote this piece about five years ago for a start-up publication that never quite started up. I thought about it again last week, amid the John Thain controversy. So while the references are a bit moldy—sorry—the message couldn’t be more up to date.)

OSWALD’S INFERNO

“Midway along the journey of our life

I strayed, abandoning the rightful path,

And found myself within a gloomy wood.”

—Dante Alighieri, “The Divine Comedy”

If Dennis Kozlowski is going to hell, then I may be right behind him.

The former head of Tyco—once anointed “the next Jack Welch” by Barron’s—earned a one-way ticket to the netherworld by duping shareholders about his company’s “powerful and predictable” business model.

You’ll find the same deceptive cheerleading in the annual reports and financial presentations of companies like Enron, Worldcom and ImClone, too.

Legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley was designed to stem this problem, providing more “transparency” to investors. But—to a great extent—all it has done is make executives more opaque about what they say in public, while bloating 10-Ks with dense pages of hard-to-decipher financial notes.

And that’s why—like the immortal Italian poet Dante—I find myself in a “gloomy wood.” Not because I’ve purchased $6,000 shower curtains with petty cash or practiced accounting fraud. But because I worry that the lingua franca of today’s companies may not always provide the clearest and most candid view of the truth.

Facing a similar moral abyss in pre-Renaissance Italy, Dante wrote “Inferno”—the first book of “The Divine Comedy” trilogy—that told of his harrowing journey through nine circles of hell, from lustfulness and gluttony to violence, fraud and betrayal.

If Dante were a freelance writer working in corporate America today, he may have identified nine entirely different levels of the devil’s domain. In hopes of saving my own soul, and those of fellow world-weary wordslingers, I share them with you here:

EBULLIENCE. Can you believe how exciting work is today? Companies are excited about new product launches, excited about the prospects of mergers and acquisitions, and they couldn’t be more excited about the year ahead. Some days, I’m so excited I want to wear a party hat to work.

BRAGGADOCIO. Hyperbole didn’t burst with the Internet bubble. Read carefully and you’ll still find companies with unparalleled capabilities and revolutionary new business models. Not surprisingly, all are uniquely positioned to succeed!

EMBELLISHMENT. Innovations need to be groundbreaking. Cost cutting is always aggressive. Methodologies are rigorous. And what good is a multi-million-dollar investment in technology unless it is leading-edge and transforming?

BROMIDERY. Persistent use of soundbites that sound meaningful, but say nothing, such as: “We are passionately committed to providing high-value products and services that meet or exceed the expectations of our customers.”

WHOPPERISM. Want to hype a growth opportunity before you even have a product for sale? Simple. Just quote an analyst, no matter how obscure. Something like “The Neptune Group predicts industry sales will grow to more than $17.5 billion by 2012” is a good working model.

WISHY-WASHERY. Beware of words like “significant” and “considerable.” Same goes for phrases like “recognized as one of the leaders” or “among the fastest growing.” Typically such vague phrases hide far less impressive truths.

CLOONEYISM. I’m sure Sebastian Junger never knew he was giving birth to an all-time classic corporate cliché when he wrote “The Perfect Storm.” Just combine any three excuses for not hitting your numbers, and pray for “calmer seas” ahead.

EQUIVOCATION. When Clooneysim fails, equivocation is often the life preserver of choice. “Cautiously optimistic” is a best seller these days. “Positioned for long-term growth” is another good island in the storm.

IMPENETRABILITY. When all else fails, companies often turn over their communications to the legal department. Since no one can understand the resulting copy, it eliminates all possible liability.

As I proceed cautiously into another year of freelance writing and consulting, I promise to keep these temptations pinned to my computer monitor, perhaps earning a small measure of redemption for past transgressions.

If I fail, may the gods have mercy on my soul. But from the sound of most corporate communications I read today, I’ll have plenty of company where I’m headed.

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