A victim’s account of a hostile outburst from his abusive boss

Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank blogged about being on the receiving end of a hostile outburst from his “abusive boss,” the company CEO, after Blake gave his opinion about an issue being discussed during a company meeting at Ardent Computer.

Hostile and humiliating outbursts like this from managers are the quickest ways for leaders to stifle motivation, engagement, creativity, and ultimately innovation.

Silence descended across the conference table. The CEO turned to me and asked, “What did you say?” Thinking he was impressed with my mastery of the subject as well as my brilliant observation, I repeated myself and embellished my initial observation with all the additional reasons why I thought our customers would want this feature. I was about to get an education that would last a lifetime.

Picture the scene: The entire company (all 15 of us) is present. For this startup, we had assembled some of the best and brightest hardware and software engineers in the computer industry. My boss, the CEO, had just come from a string of successes at Convergent Technologies, Intel and Digital Equipment, names that at that time carried a lot of weight.

Now in a voice so quiet it could be barely heard across the conference table our CEO turns to me and says, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”  It was the last sentence I heard before my career trajectory as a marketer was permanently changed.

At the top of his lungs he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need! You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.”

I was mortified with the dressing down in front of my friends as well as new employees I barely knew. Later my friends told me my face went pale.

He continued yelling, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that has more knowledge of scientific customers and scientific computers than any other startup has ever had. They’ve been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to have an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession and have made a fool of yourself and will continue to do so every time you open your mouth. Get out of this conference room, get out of this building and get out of my company; you are wasting all of our time.”

I was stunned by the verbal onslaught. At that moment I felt so small I could have walked out of a room underneath the crack in a closed door.

No input from an employee warrants such an abusive and reprehensible response, and nobody should have to work in such a hostile work environment

By the way, this “disgrace to the marketing profession” went on to serve as a director on the boards of two publicly-traded companies, Macrovision and Immersion, and several private companies.  Blank currently teaches entrepreneurship at the Stanford University Graduate School of Engineering, the U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School, and a joint MBA class with Columbia Business School and Haas.

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