We’re Living in the Golden Age of the Corporate Takedown

Elizabeth Holmes. Photo: AP Images

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.

Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.

We may be living in the golden age of the corporate takedown, where failure is now a measure of success. Late-stage capitalism has made us more aware than ever of our being beholden to our office-bound overlords, while changing communication styles also demand that CEOs be authentic and accessible. Reporters eager to document executive meltdowns are just a tweet away, and anyone can pull out a smartphone to record a tongue-lashing or an inappropriate remark. Our increasing dependence on an unstable and unhealthy gig economy has created an insatiable desire for CEO schadenfreude, where the corporate horror story has become bedtime reading for the exhausted worker.

1. “The Prophet Motive,” by Stephen Rodrick (Esquire, August 2016)

When an overhyped CEO fails, a certain “I told you so” makes the fall that much more riveting. Roderick tells the story of Dan Price, the Gravity Payments exec who decided to pay everyone in his company $70,000 a year. Lauded as a savior, Price quickly went from a corporate evangelist to a lone wolf despised by the people he loved most.

And then the deluge. His ex-wife made her allegations. His brother sued him. The book deal fell apart. The hero was now being called a douchebag. When I met with Price for the first time, in February, his eyes filled with tears as he admitted that the two people in the world who’d once loved him the most—his brother and his ex-wife—no longer spoke to him.

“Maybe I’m not the good guy I think I am,” said Price, wiping his eyes with his hand. But almost immediately, his face brightened. “Well, I also think they sold their Dan Price stock too low and they’re frustrated with themselves.”

2. “How Elizabeth Holmes’s House of Cards Came Tumbling Down,” by Nick Bilton, (Vanity Fair, September 2016)

The more grandiose the executive, the harder the fall. When self-made billionaire Elizabeth Holmes went from the next Steve Jobs to a pariah with worthless stock, we couldn’t stop reading. Nick Bilton’s report (following stellar investigative reporting by The Wall Street Journal‘s John Carreyrou) chronicles the black-turtlenecked exec from ambitious start to embarrassed finish.

In hundreds of interviews with the media and on panels, Holmes honed her story to near perfection….But her reverence for Steve Jobs was perhaps most glaring. Besides the turtlenecks, Holmes’s proprietary blood-analysis device, which she named “Edison” after Thomas Edison, resembled Jobs’s NeXT computer. She designed her Theranos office with Le Corbusier black leather chairs, a Jobs favorite. She also adhered to a strange diet of only green juices (cucumber, parsley, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, and celery), to be drunk only at specific times of the day. Like Jobs, too, her company was her life. She rarely ever left the office, only going home to sleep. To celebrate her birthday, Holmes held a party at Theranos headquarters with her employees. (Her brother, Christian, also works at Theranos.)

But the most staggering characteristic that she borrowed from the late C.E.O. was his obsession with secrecy.

3. “Dov Charney’s Sleazy Struggle for Control of American Apparel,” by Susan Berfield (Bloomberg Businessweek, July 2014)

There’s a sick satisfaction in watching a well-loved, altruistic brand go kaput, and the demise of American Apparel scratched that itch. Berfield checked in with the company after its CEO, Dov Charney, was removed after a corporate coup. Or was it a bold rescue of a brand now tainted by its loathsome leader? You be the judge.

Charney describes himself as unconventional, and some employees found the chaos and freedom in the workplace thrilling. Charney often invited new executives and visiting employees to stay with him for a few weeks, sometimes to get a feel for company culture. That included holding weekly videoconference calls with managers from home, sometimes in bed, occasionally shirtless. He put his mobile phone number on the company’s website and would answer no matter who called. Young women regularly sent him nude photos. “Dov is very intense. He’s very charismatic. And anybody who is so passionate and so totally devoted to what he’s doing can be attractive. So he’s always been subjected to a lot of temptation,” says Mayer.

4. “A Silicon Valley Tale of Humiliation and Revenge,” by Burt Helm (Inc., February 2012)

Silicon Valley manages to attract its own brand of intensity—like Khalid Shaikh, who ended up trying to take down the company he helped build. Helm weaves a sobering tale of how Shaikh turned on his own tech company, and the price he paid for his revenge.

In Khalid’s view, it was a power grab, plain and simple. The termination sent a clear message to him: He was powerless. Khalid had no significant equity, no brother around for support, and no authority–a notion that was confirmed when he was voted off the board a few months later. “He got shaken,” says Amir.

In the next few months, friends and co-workers noticed an embittered side of Khalid Shaikh’s personality emerging. He sent an e-mail to Mahler bemoaning how much faster YouTube was growing, even though it had gotten funding months after YouSendIt had. “We had our chance,” he wrote, calling YouSendIt a “deadbeat company.” “He felt that you couldn’t be good and be successful,” says Amir. “He would say, ‘You have to survive.’ “

5. “What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs,” by Nicholas Carlson (The New York Times Magazine, December 2014)

Sometimes, a new CEO just isn’t enough to save a sinking ship. That’s what Marissa Mayer learned when she was brought to Yahoo to perform corporate CPR. In return for her outsize ambition, she was rewarded with a spectacular failure and a buyout that broke the glass ceiling for female execs and their golden parachutes. This detailed takedown by Nicholas Carlson, shows the overreaching executive in heartless high-res.

7. “How to Fail in Business While Really, Really Trying,” by Jennifer Reingold (Fortune, March 2014)

Some corporate juggernauts seem rescue-proof. That was case with J.C. Penney, a once legendary retailer that’s been embattled for decades, watching a parade of would-be saviors fail. In Fortune, Reingold turns her sights on Ron Johnson, the ex-Apple exec who was eventually ousted from the company and replaced by the predecessor he had been hired to outperform.

Then it was party time. Officially the fete was intended to bid farewell to Johnson’s predecessor, Myron “Mike” Ullman III, but it felt more like an ecstatic celebration of the company’s rebirth. With nary a whisper of opposition, the 109-year-old retailer had decided to abandon not only its strategy of many decades but arguably its fundamental way of doing business.

Just 16 months later Johnson was out. Penney was hemorrhaging cash; it lost $1 billion during his one full year as CEO. Its shares were hurtling downward. The press had turned against him. One of the two investors who installed him had fled. As fast as they had once anointed Johnson a messiah, Penney’s directors turned their backs on him.

7. “Everything You Know About Martin Shkreli Is Wrong—or Is it?” by Bethany McLean (Vanity Fair, December 2015)

Certain CEOs are just too easy to vilify, like “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli who made a name for himself by buying the patents to lifesaving drugs then jacking up their prices. But the most fascinating takes on Shkreli treated him as more than an easy mark—like this piece by Bethany McLean, who went for a more nuanced look at Shkreli and ended up drawing a deeply weird portrait of a naively evil exec.

But it’s hard to know which manifestation of Martin is authentic. What muddles the picture even more is the arena in which he operates: small biotech companies, some of which thrive thanks to loopholes, legal frauds, pipe dreams, and stock promoters—and a smattering of real science, just enough to ignite fantasies of fame and fortune. Those who know how to game the system can make huge profits without creating anything of value. “Welcome to the underworld,” says one investor.

Shkreli is unquestionably brilliant, and he has an almost cult-like group of true believers, both online (“You’re a god,” wrote one Twitter follower) and in the real world, where he has engendered tremendous loyalty among some investors and employees. But in his wake he has left a tangled trail of blowups, lawsuits, disillusionment, and outright hatred.

8. “First, Let’s Get Rid of All the Bosses,” by Roger D. Hodge (The New Republic, October 2015)

Not every executive is evil—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining to watch their strange machinations and wonder what on Earth they were thinking. Case in point: Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh, who erased all forms of management at his company and gave the employees a system to make their own decisions. Roger D. Hodge profiles the well-intentioned but impractical CEO who decided to turn his multibillion-dollar company into a holacracy run by, well, everyone.

All this talk about higher stages of consciousness is fine, but even gung-ho Tealiocrats like Kirby are unwilling to live on the bleeding edge if they have to take a pay cut.

And so far, even months later, no one seems to know whether they will. It wasn’t just that management roles have been deprecated. Almost every management policy has been called into question. Everything—including compensation, performance management, discipline, time management and attendance, appointments and promotions, recruitment and dismissal—was very much in flux.

9. “Reddit: A Nine-Year Case Study in Absentee Management,” by Felix Gillette and Gerry Smith (Bloomberg Businessweek, August 2015)

Super-involved executives are one thing, but what happens when they sit back and rake in the cash without doing anything? That’s what happened to Reddit when it was acquired by Condé Nast—and as Felix Gillette and Gerry Smith tell it, what happened next is an example of benevolent neglect gone horribly awry.

A former Condé Nast executive says that, in retrospect, one flaw with the company’s hands-off approach was an assumption that Reddit’s founders would know when and how to ask for help. They didn’t. Prior to joining Condé Nast, neither Ohanian nor Huffman had significant experience working inside a large company. Looking back, says the former Condé executive, more hand-holding would have been a good idea.

10. “The Inside Story of Uber’s Radical Rebranding” by Jessi Hempel (Wired, February 2016)

Sometimes the most effective takedown is not a direct attack, but a seemingly innocuous one. In an article that focuses on Uber’s new logo, Jessi Hempel managed to reveal quite a bit about CEO Travis Kalanick’s priorities, personal motivations, and the company’s woes, which range from tussles with cities to claims of sexual harassment and strike-breaking. Kalanick’s desire to make his company “grow up” sound particularly hollow a year later, and give the piece a fascinating subtext even for those who aren’t design nerds.

Here’s the thing, though. Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. This was an unusual decision. Most CEOs hire experts—branding agencies that specialize in translating corporate values into fonts and colors—or tap an in-house team. Not Kalanick.

11. “Mr. Swipe Right,” by Nellie Bowles (The California Sunday Magazine, January 2016)

Sometimes a takedown is unintentional: The CEO simply doesn’t know when to top talking. When Bowles visited 30-year old Tinder founder Sean Rad, she had to reconcile what she had heard about him (“The app reflects the personality of Sean…it’s a 1-to-1 correlation,”) with a deeper understanding of his need for power and attention.

Rosette Pambakian, Rad’s right-hand woman, has been at his side for three years. An L.A. native with long maroon manicured nails, she’s given to eye-rolls and pained sighs. He calls her his “Cookie”—the powerful female lead in the TV show Empire. “I’m a stage mom,” Pambakian says, and indeed Rad seems to need disciplining almost immediately.

“It is common that I ask people to send me Snapchat photos,” Rad says, “and they’re usually themed with one thing in mind. I don’t ask for sexts but—”

Pambakian jumps in. “Sean, will you stop? This is being recorded!”

“Yes, I sext on Snapchat,” Rad laughs.

Pambakian tries again. “Stop, Sean. You’re the CEO of Tinder who’s now saying he’s sexting on Snapchat!”

“I’m a single guy, a young guy. I don’t send; I only receive,” Rad says. “I’m not crazy.”