COMMENDABLE COMMENT AWARD

Words matter. When I hear a lawyer’s remark that resonates profoundly beyond its immediate context. I’ll pass it along here. Nominations are now open for this new feature, which may have a darkside counterpart to this article’s title — perhaps “Condemnable Communication Award” (for which Steven Pesner’s memo on time submissions would have qualified  — see “EXPLAINING BAD BEHAVIOR”  https://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/explaining-bad-behavior/). But let’s launch this endeavor on a positive note.

December 5 wasn’t an ordinary Sunday for Jeffrey Kindler. At age 55, he surprised most of the business world when he retired after only four-and-a-half years as Pfizer’s CEO:

“I am excited at the opportunity to recharge my batteries, spend some rare time with my family, and prepare for the next challenge in my career.” (http://pfizer.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=5149&item=20608)

The stated desire for more family time often appears in such announcements. But he went farther: “The combination of meeting the requirements of our many stakeholders around the world and the 24/7 nature of my responsibilities has made this period extremely demanding on me personally.”

I don’t know if Kindler was a good or bad CEO. But with refreshing candor, he acknowledged that the unreasonable burdens of his job were threatening some of his life’s most important moments. Like most lawyers, he has probably found that to be true for a long time.

After graduating from Harvard (a year after me), he became a staff attorney with the FCC, clerked for Judge Bazelon and Justice Brennan, and then joined Williams & Connolly where he became a partner. He left big law for a senior in-house position at General Electric and then went to McDonalds before becoming Pfizer’s general counsel in 2002. The board surprised some industry observers when it selected Kindler — a relatively new lateral hire — to be CEO “effective immediately” on July 28, 2006. (Four years later, his successor likewise assumed control quickly, too. More about that later.)

A day after Kindler’s retirement, two business school professors appearing on CNBC praised his sincerity and lamented his departure. They also bemoaned the “short-termism” of investors who may have grown impatient with Pfizer’s sluggish stock performance since its Wyeth acquisition a year ago.

Shortly thereafter, reports circulated that the Pfizer board had scheduled a special meeting — on a Sunday — to review Kindler’s future.  (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-07/pfizer-chief-kindler-said-to-resign-after-snubbing-board-s-plan-for-deputy.html) Apparently, he preempted it.

Beyond news reports, I know nothing about Pfizer, its management or its internal politics. Kindler and I have never met, but both the progress of his career and the commentary surrounding his departure mirror what big law has become.

He advanced by moving out — bypassing the climb up one company’s internal ladder by parachuting into another. Similar lateral hiring into equity partnerships is now widespread. He continued that diagonal path to the top, but then “short-termism” emerged as his nemesis. A comparable mindset now endangers big law partners valued exclusively for their current contributions to yearly profits. Finally, when the end came, it was swift and certain.

Whether Kindler’s last act in his Pfizer career began with him or the board doesn’t matter to my Commendable Comment Award. He wins it because he wasn’t afraid to say that his job responsibilities consumed him beyond reason. Similar 24/7 burdens have taken a toll on many attorneys, especially as large firms have adopted the short-term profit-maximizing ethos of their corporate clients. Few admit to such strains, but the profession would be better if more did.

Regardless of the motivation for Kindler’s final statement, he deserves high marks for making it. Even without incorporating the background drama of a retirement, many firm managers could improve their institutions with a straightforward acknowledgement that some things aren’t easily measured, but should be treasured nonetheless.

Like the CNBC commentators, I have no reason to doubt Kindler’s sincerity. To skeptics who worry that such “soft” remarks seems disingenuous when contrasted with the hard-driving ambition that fuels any leader’s rise, I offer this: The thought is the father to the deed — and late is better than never at all.

Enjoy the holidays, Jeff.

3 thoughts on “COMMENDABLE COMMENT AWARD

  1. Urban Meyer, who is only 46 years old, gave essentially the same reasons for resigning as the head football coach at Florida this week after winning two national titles. Although I never came close to achieving the same level of success as Kindler or Meyer, I left BigLaw for the same reasons many years ago, so I particularly appreciate the example that these two high-profile men set for others in putting their families first.

  2. For a long time “spending time with family” has been given as a reason when there is a high profile job exit. I am therefore skeptical that it is always a truthful statement. It is definitely not informative of what went wrong at the job and may simply be a euphemism for getting stabbed in the back.

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