The Advancing Leadership Blog

Corporate Rock Stars and Failed Careers

TEC Canada Speaker, Grant Ainsley

Grant Ainsley is a speaker and media trainer from Edmonton, Alberta and will be speaking to TEC groups across Canada in 2013. You can find out more about Grant at

Think for a moment about the qualities that make a great CEO.  There’s intelligence, leadership, and vision of course.  Then there are other things more raw such as guts, determination and charisma.  Let me add another one to the list that most people don’t about often – the ability to handle themselves well in the media, especially during a crisis.

I have several presentations planned with TEC groups across Canada in 2013 and the one point that I want to drive home is the importance to deal effectively with the media.  I have worked as a media consultant, speaker and trainer for the past five years and have come to the realization that, in some cases, how a CEO handles himself or herself in the media can make or break their careers.  They can either soar to be corporate rock stars or crash and burn, lose their jobs and their careers.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Take the case of the former CEO of Alberta Health Services Stephen Duckett.  Two years ago, he lost a job that paid him close to $700,000 a year in pay and bonuses, because of one oatmeal raisin cookie.  It became the most expensive cookie in recorded history.  On that Friday afternoon on a cold November day he decided that he didn’t want to speak to the media (some have said he was told he couldn’t speak), so he used a cookie to try to get past reporters in an Edmonton hotel, saying he “wanted to eat his cookie”.  Didn’t work.  When he refused to speak to reporters, he actually was refusing to speak to Albertans, the people who paid his rich salary.  Four days later he was fired.  Last I heard he was planning to return home to Australia.

Then there was the much more high profile case of Tony Hayward, the former Chairman of BP, who lost his job towards the end of the Gulf Oil crisis.  I felt a little sorry for Hayward to be honest.  He was a geologist who worked his way up the ranks at BP to become Chairman.  He didn’t handle himself well during the crisis.  He didn’t seemed prepared for the media onslaught.  He was a little stiff and had problems answering some questions that he should have had answers for. His biggest mistake was his infamous line “I’d like my life back.”  A few days later he went sailing.  Terrible optics.  He got his life back when he was replaced as Chairman.  Tony is doing well though.  He’s on a number of major Boards and still making some big dollars, but his career as a major corporate leader certainly isn’t that same.

I’m sure both Duckett and Hayward wished they had a chance to do it all over again.  Unfortunately when you are a CEO in the middle of a crisis, you don’t get a lot of second chances.

Not everyone crashes and burns.  Some become what I call corporate rock stars.  Best example by far is Michael McCain, the President and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods.  Most of us recall the listeriosis outbreak in 2008.  Over 20 people were killed after eating contaminated meat from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in North York, Ontario.  McCain refused to listen to company lawyers and instead took the advice of public relations professionals.  He did exactly what I talk about at every session that I do.  He showed remorse for what happened, took total responsibility, talked about the changes that he planned to make sure it didn’t happen again and most importantly, he was real.

Although some CEO’s do have natural communications skills, there’s no question that anyone gets better with the more experience they develop in speaking to the media.  Getting training and especially good pr advice when a crisis occurs is terribly important as well.

Not everyone can become a corporate rock star, but trying to get there seems to be much better than the alternative.

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