On May 3, 2012, a dissident investor accused Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson of falsifying his resume on the company web site and in financial disclosures by claiming a computer science degree that he didn’t earn. One part of the ensuing debate just reeks of corporate idolatry – it is more about what is best for Yahoo as a company, and not about the underlying values. For example, Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast argues “Who cares? … He’s qualified to run Yahoo.” Lyons also (rightly) point out that Dan Loeb, the investor who blew the whistle, certainly doesn’t care about the resume. Mr. Loeb wants Thompson out because of disagreements over business strategy.
To me, however, values are paramount, and this seems like a cut-and-dried issue. The CEO sets the moral tone of a company, and you cannot have someone lying about their resume at the head. Thompson has to go.
But sometimes I am quick to judge, so I called Pam Fox Rollin, leadership coach and author of 42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role for a second opinion. As usual, Pam had something thoughtful and level-headed to say. “I agree, the CEO does set the moral tone of the company, and if he lied about his resume he has to go, with the following proviso: did he know? I say this because in my experience, other people have padded my resume for me, calling my book a best seller. It was number one in certain [Amazon] categories, but never a best seller. I correct it immediately whenever I see it, but publicity materials have gone out where I haven’t caught it in time.”
A few days later Pam sent me a link to an audio clip from 2009 in which Thompson is asked how his dual computer science and accounting degree prepared him for his role at Yahoo today. Not only did Thomson fail to correct the interviewer, he launched into a platitude-laden speech about how important it is to prepare and inspire young people. Personally, I don’t buy Thompson’s latest explanation, that in fact it was PR people who made the error, and he didn’t correct the interviewer in 2009 out of politeness. I understand the temptation to pad the resume, especially when it comes to a college degree decades ago. I almost did it less than a year ago.
Not a Minor Issue
Here I was, writing pitch letters to agents and publishers. My background in science and marketing wasn’t directly applicable to my new career writing about Corporate Idolatry, and I was in a bind for how to describe myself. Well, I was close to earning a Minor in Philosophy. Relevant, yes, but it’s kind of awkward to write “AB in Biology with lots of classes in philosophy.” Why not just say that I have a Minor in Philosophy? I hate to admit it, but the idea had serious consideration. The more I thought about it, the more real that minor seemed to become. And I made all kinds of arguments to myself, rationalizing the imagined benefits to my career against the small risk that anyone would notice. But it also didn’t feel right to lie, even if no one ever knew.
In the end, when I remembered my identity and my values, the decision became easy. I see myself as a modern-day Abraham, who smashes corporate idols. Idolatry is about adopting an inappropriate value system, and then crafting illusions to rationalize it. My values put people first, and lying isn’t part of the equation. I still haven’t found an agent or publisher, but hell, does anyone out there think I have one today if I had airbrushed my philosophy cred? (If you do, I’ll send you a list of the agents who rejected me.)
Two Impulses, One Choice
This week I started reading a book about Mussar, the ancient Jewish practice of everyday ethics, and found my inner turmoil described in the third chapter. Inside of everyone, the argument goes, there is a conflict between the good impulse and the evil impulse. We all feel the evil impulse, but can choose whether and how we obey it. And, evil really isnt’ a good descriptor – there is a story that once the rabis managed to trap the evil impulse, but everyone in the village stopped working and “even the chickens stopped laying eggs.” The so-called evil impulse is what gives us drive and ambition, which are good things when guided by compassion and values. (For a more in-depth treatment of this issue, see The Enemy Within, when a transporter accident splits Captain Kirk into his good and evil halves. The good half couldn’t lead his way out of a paper bag. Watch it here.)
I made the choice not to pad my education in my cover letter, and I set a precedent for myself such that I have not been tempted to pad since then. But if I had chosen to pad the cover letter, maybe next time I would have padded my actual resume. And after that, maybe I pad my LinkedIn profile.
I suspect Thompson went down a path like this. Maybe not, but he certainly had ample opportunity between the 2009 interview and now to set the record straight.
Yahoo has enough problems. The last thing they need is someone with questionable ethics at the helm. In this case, the right thing and the right thing for the company, are both pointing in the same direction.