CEOs Who Lost Their Jobs Talk About What Went Wrong

Fortune’s new article “Lessons of the fall” is interesting and entertaining for two reasons. First, it humanizes brings a human face to the usually remote CEO, in this case the exes at Motorola, Starbucks, and Jet Blue. But more important if you’re a wage slave who can admit to a little schadenfreude, it describes how each man was fired from his job. Former Starbucks CEO Jim Donald, who’s in his fifties, says the hardest thing was letting his mother know:

First phone call was to my mom. Probably the toughest day I’ve ever faced, ever. Ever, ever, ever! Because moms have a way of putting their sons up on pedestals. I said, “Mom, how are you?” And she goes, “Great. Why are you calling me at ten in the morning?” I just said, “Hey, I just want to tell you, I’m not with Starbucks anymore, but everything is fine.”

The three men also talk about the big blunders that happened on their respective watches—Donald says he should have expanded Starbucks internationally faster to offset the plunging U.S. economy, while JetBlue’s David Neeleman says it was the infamous, icy Valentine’s Day 2007 when passengers sat trapped on tarmacs as thousands of JetBlue flights were canceled.

I think on the PR side, we did it right. I’ve always learned, if you make a mistake, you admit to it. You explain what happened. And then you explain how it’s never going to happen again and what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t. It’s a very simple formula, I think. But really there were two events: the stranding of people on airplanes, which was absolutely inexcusable. Then there was the lingering on—how it took us three, four days to get all our flights back in the air. We learned our lessons from that.

[Later] a couple of board members came to my office and said, basically, “We want you to step down as CEO and be the chairman and be responsible for strategy.” I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it. Just the fact that I was flabbergasted – either I’m the biggest idiot on the planet or maybe the process could have been better.

“Lessons of the fall” [Fortune]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. I think the JetBlue thing was just a PR railroading (sacrificial lamb or whatever you want to call it). But it happens. That’s part of why CEO’s get paid what they do.

    Manage your money well and spend 2-3 years as a CEO or pro athlete and you can be easily set for life. In theory.

  2. JadoJodo says:

    “Yeah, Mom, You know all that Starbucks equipment I brought home for you…It’s gonna have to go back. Sorry.”

  3. Raziya says:

    Heh, I misread the article link at first and thought it said “Lesson of the Fail”. I think either way would have been appropriate. :P

  4. Oh I’m so glad to find out some multimillionaire will be ok after losing his job.

    Poor guy.

  5. DeepFriar says:

    Hey Fortune, don’t forget to mention the millions they collect in seperation packages. That usually helps the sting.
    /don’t feel bad for them at all

  6. bukz68 says:

    perhaps starbucks shouldn’t have hired a CEO who has to call his mommy when shit hits the fan…

  7. B says:

    What a coincidence, when I lost my job at Starbucks, I called my mom, too.

  8. pmathews says:

    Why are we trying to humanize multi-millionaires?

  9. sir_pantsalot says:

    You people have no idea what these guys went thtough. They made millions of dollars per year and their life style was such that they spent almost all of those millions of dollars. Now they cant keep all their boats, houses, cars, mistresses and whatever else they blew their money on. You little people have never had to go to the country club and have everyone look at you and wisper things about you.

  10. pmathews says:


    *psst…you see that guy over there? He lives in that 1 million dollar house. Isn’t that just sad. How can he show his face here. I heard that he had to sell all but one of his cars and he fired his driver. Such a sad sad man.

  11. sir_pantsalot says:

    @pmathews: Do you know where we all can sigh up for such horrible living conditions?

  12. Making money is a bad thing?

    I didnt go to no damn business school, but somewhere in my education I learned that the goal of every adult was to be successful and one way (one way, not the only way) of measuring success was the amount of money earned for the job performed.

    Am I wrong?

    Don’t think so.

    SO when I read disparaging comments about someboyd else’s wages it causes me to wonder what is wrong. Maybe a bit of petty jealousy? Maybe the poster is unhappy with their own levels of success?

    I know that I personally will never make those kinds of wages. The mistakes that I made in my past (skipping classes, blowing off a test, declining a promotion ’cause I would have to move yada yada) have destined me to my current level of success/failure. Acceptance, part of being an adult. So what is your excuss?

  13. Eilonwynn says:

    Kind of devil’s advocate here – but these guys have incredibly high pressure jobs, and they are paid for that. They have to manage sometimes huge corporations, take the flak for things they didn’t do, and are blamed for things well outside their control. And they are paid well for that. I don’t begrudge them the money they’ve earned. Half the time they really have no clue the problems that are occurring on an individual consumer basis, they’re too busy coping with trying to keep an entire division employed because their general manager hired under the last guy’s managed to embezzle five hundred grand.

  14. ElizabethD says:

    Want list of complete severance packages. Then try me for some sympathy.

  15. S3CT says:

    These CEOs receive millions of dollars just to leave for ruining companies. Crocodile tears for them.

  16. Echodork says:

    @pmathews: Because they’re people?

    Yeah, yeah. I get it. People who make a lot of money aren’t allowed to be real people, they have to be demons that we all hate because we’re totally not jealous, but like, they don’t deserve all that cash that I don’t have.

  17. TropicalParadise says:

    @Corporate-Shill: I completely agree with you there. My dad, while not a CEO but a COO, is an executive in his company and he works like a dog. Most don’t get to the top by relaxing and playing golf, they work hard, long hours and sacrifice a lot.

    The jobs are stressful and take time to get to where they are. If my dad’s blackberry rings in the middle of the night, he MUST answer it.

    Then, as soon as something goes wrong, everything the person did WELL for the company is completely forgotten and they’re hoisted up by their ties.

    But then again, a large proportion of consumerist commenters have chronic Negative Nancy disorder.

  18. evslin says:

    @bukz68: If I was going to get fired from a top job like that, I’d call my mom too. Better that she hears it from me directly than on World News with Charlie Gibson that evening.

    Of all the things one could possibly hold against the guy, calling his mom after he got canned isn’t one of them imo.

  19. malvones says:

    Yeah.. I can identify with Donald.

    Brings back memories of the awkward conversation with my mom after they cut back my shifts at Einstein Bagels.

  20. midwestkel says:

    It sucks for them…

    everyone hating on them, why you try and get a job as a CEO for a large corporation, they do a lot of hard work to get to where they are.

  21. LosersHaveCreditCardDebt says:

    They get a golden parachute.

    Underlings get a golden shower

  22. @LosersHaveCreditCardDebt:

    Us underlings choose to be an underling. Maybe not exactly. But we did make choices. I choose to sleep through college. There was a guy at college that is now a VP of stupid products or something at Microsoft… getting paid the big bucks. We thought he was a real dweep. Not worthy of breathing air. We may have been correct and may still be correct, but he is making the $ and I am not.

  23. mac-phisto says:

    @Corporate-Shill: alright, i’ll take the bait. here’s the problem with massive CEO pay & bonuses – it promotes volatility within the company. long-term growth is often sacrificed for short-term gains to ensure rapid increases in stock price (which, in turn, is the catalyst for massive pay increase & bonuses to executives).

    that’s not healthy for a company – esp. when gains are produced by massive cuts in cost that reduce a company’s ability to compete.

    also, this notion that the CEO position is the pinnacle of existence is ludicrous. some people go to school to be CEOs. some go to be graphic designers or engineers or chemists or machinists – you know, people that actually invent, design & manufacture the very products that make a company successful. yet, these people aren’t rewarded at even 1/100th of the level of a single person – even if they are top in their field. that makes sense to you?

    a company will shed even their best design teams to save a few dollars (while doling out millions in bonuses to a single person that made their stock rise 4%) not realizing that they are not only laying off their “bread & butter”, they are also willingly offering them up to their competition which will negatively impact future growth.

    do i have a problem with “healthy” executive compensation. no, not at all. but i don’t equate “healthy” to gluttony either, which is exactly what this is.

  24. @Corporate-Shill: I didnt go to no damn business school, but somewhere in my education I learned that the goal of every adult was to be successful and one way (one way, not the only way) of measuring success was the amount of money earned for the job performed.

    And that, my friends, is why many of us have a problem with capitalism. You measure success only by the amount of money earned? I pray for your soul. I’d like to think there are doctors, teachers, nurses, police and firefighters, at the least, who think differently.

    Is that truly what our society has come to?

  25. BlackFlag55 says:

    The first rule of high stakes management is don’t be the one caught without a chair when the music stops.

  26. @BaysideWrestling: Not only did you fail to red his comment, you quoted it and still screwed it up. I pray for your soul.

  27. @BaysideWrestling:

    Please note that I said “one way, not the only way” of measuring success.

  28. @Echodork: Word.
    @TropicalParadise: Double Word.

  29. Haltingpoint says:

    A lot of people here seem to lack sympathy due to the compensation these executives received during and at the end of their employment.

    This is asinine. Like it or not, they ARE people and when you are in one of the highest stress positions that exist (and getting paid accordingly) and you get fired, it sucks, plain and simple. It also means you no longer get to live the same cushy life style you once did. You need to make cut backs, although if you’ve saved/invested properly they might not be major ones.

    Ok, so boo hoo they go from 10mm/year salary to 1mm/year from their investments. Well, if they have a couple massive mortgages, a large family, multiple car payments, etc. then that can put ANY family in financial jeapardy. So quit with the petty jealousy because that is all it can be seen for.

  30. krom says:

    Let’s boil it down.

    Neeleman: Board members are dumbasses. (So basically, the corporate model is inherently crap.)

    Donald: Everyone is disposable, no matter how well you do. Including me.

    Zander: Board members are impatient, greedy dumbasses. Despite that, and despite being fired, I’m still going to kiss their asses. And being a one-trick, one-niche pony is bad strategy.