Business

It feels lonelier at the top with everyone working from home

Memo from the CEO

To all employees of Global Cryptobank

As I sit here on the 84th floor of our magnificent New York headquarters, inaugurated only three years ago but now practically empty, I want to share my feelings with you all. I have reflected carefully since the outrage that followed my previous memo, calling on you to return to work or face the consequences.

I am not the only boss who is frustrated by employees hoping to carry on working from home, or somewhere else entirely. James Gorman, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, has told his staff to be back at their desks by September 6: “If you want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York. None of this ‘I’m in Colorado . . . and getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City,’” he said.

Quite right, James: it is called Labor Day, after all. But people now seem to regard it as provocative for CEOs to talk this openly, despite the progress of vaccination. The staff of Washingtonian magazine launched a day-long protest in May after Cathy Merrill, its chief executive, wrote that homeworking could make employees less valuable and easier to let go. The pandemic has turned some folks very touchy. 

So, I consulted with Alison, our global head of human resources, as well as Nisha, my personal therapist, before starting this memo. I also engaged in a long and insightful discussion with our management committee on Zoom, in which I explained my thoughts and eagerly sought their opinions. I am the boss but I am part of the Global Cryptobank team, and I value honesty almost as much as making money.

Their feedback was heartfelt and unanimous: “Don’t do it, Bob,” they pleaded. “The last time you spoke your truth about our colleagues refusing to come back, it was a diplomatic disaster that Alison has only just smoothed over.” Mike, global head of dogecoin trading, was quite candid. He said to me: “Bob, some of us have been worried about you lately. Are you losing it?”

That is a great question, expressed with the bluntness that we so appreciate from Mike on the trading desk, and I want to respond. The answer is, maybe. It is lonely at the top and it has been lonelier since this tower cleared out. I don’t know how many of you have visited the executive floor but if you ever return, you really should come up. It has some terrific views.

I have a telescope here, designed by one of our Silicon Valley clients and made with innovative night vision technology. Sometimes, at the end of the long, solitary working day, I use it. Gazing down on the expensive apartments in Tribeca where some of you live, thanks to our generous bonuses, I see bankers on video calls with cameras switched off, sipping wine.

I have started to wonder what is the point of my job, apart from the $35m that I was paid last year? If I am called chief executive officer but cannot behave like a chief or take executive decisions, the only part of the role left is officer, which means being in the office. It might be OK if others were too, but some days it is only me and Joe, the guy on the door, and he is 84 floors below.

The other day, I read an interesting study of the psychology of leaders. It said that, although the job can be isolating — people often suck up to us, do not speak openly, that kind of thing — we don’t actually feel lonely at the top. Giving orders makes us feel connected to others and fulfils the evolutionary need for a sense of belonging. That sure made sense to me.

The study quotes a great speech by William Deresiewicz to the US Military Academy at West Point, and you know how we CEOs love to compare ourselves with military heroes. “Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others — the people you’re leading,” he said. Bill’s a literary essayist and English professor, but I think he gets it.

Do you spot the problem? Leadership “necessitates the presence of others” and you are not present. That makes my job less fulfilling and offers me fewer opportunities to exert power, so I end up lonely. It is an executive lose-lose. I know it is hard to empathise with the CEO and you have your own challenges, no question. But that is how I see it.

I had to break off from writing this memo just now to call into an emergency meeting of the board. It seems that word has gotten round: perhaps I was not the only one with whom Mike was so candid. I am happy to share with you that the board endorsed my proposal that you all be told to report back to the office soon. It also decided that this would be an appropriate time for leadership transition.

My lawyers are now negotiating my severance deal, including accelerated vesting of my stock options, and I feel highly energised, sensing many opportunities ahead. When I return from the Hamptons in September, our roles will be reversed. You will be in the office and I will be at home in my apartment on Central Park, along with the telescope I am taking as a leaving present.

My family is fortunate to have a roof deck with a clear view all the way downtown to the Global Cryptobank tower. So when you finally reach your desks in the fall, I’ll be seeing you.

Sincerely, Bob

[email protected]


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