Executive Careers Blog

The High-Wire Act


Stop me if you've heard this one before:

"The US economy has contracted at a rate not seen in 80 years, forcing companies across America to adjust to the reality of this major economic setback. Our company and our brands have weathered this storm. However, we are not immune to the effects of the substantial revenue losses resulting from the deep and prolonged recession. Consequently, we must realign (the company) to be a successful business in an emerging economy that is now predicted to be painfully slow in recovering."

Or this one:

"This is a considerable and complicated task, forcing us to rethink the way we do business in many instances and incorporate efficiencies in every step of our process … We will work with consultants, including McKinsey & Company, to develop new perspectives on optimizing our approach to business, growing revenues, and enhancing our brand assets."


Or this one:

"There is no doubt in my mind that the strength of our brands and people will provide us with the opportunity to participate in America’s economic recovery. Ensuring our financial health is paramount to our ability to be part of that process."

According to the folks at businessinsider.com, all of the quotes above came from a memo sent to employees by Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend last week.

When you remove the company name from the extracts, they could sum up the position of just about any company in any industry in America at the moment—if not the world. They perfectly encapsulate the global nature of the economy we're all operating in—and struggling not to fall victim to. They also sum up the challenges facing business leaders today and, in the one small glimmer of hope they offer, suggest that new ideas and methodologies are being tested and honed at companies all around the world.

Now forget the acumen and succinctness with which the email sums up the destructive forces at work in the marketplace and try to put yourself in the shoes of one of the employees who received that email at around 4:45 p.m. Consider what your overriding emotion would likely have been: I guarantee that fear is somewhere near the top of the list. Nothing sets off the fear sensors among the rank and file in the corporate world quite like the phrase "we're getting the consultants in"—a process that is usually followed by layoffs.

Considering the situation, it's difficult to tell if there's anything the execs at Condé Nast could have done differently. All you can ask for as an employee in tough times is to be kept fully informed of what’s going on at your company. Chuck Townsend should be lauded for that at least—even if handing out plaudits is likely to be the last thing on the minds of his employees at the moment.

In many ways, the situation sums up the fraught ledge most CEOs occupy: fail to control costs in tough times and watch your company suffer, while attracting criticism from all quarters. Attempt to control those costs, and watch your employees suffer, while still attracting criticism from all quarters.  Or, to invoke the cliché: you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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