Perhaps it takes the mass media to illustrate the skewed focus of corporate law. Here we have the [at least for now] CEO of Tribune Company, Randy Michaels, under fire for a lot of superficial things, such as an alleged frat house atmosphere in the company, while his role in the company going into and staying in bankruptcy during his three year tenure wasn’t enough to bring about such scrutiny or cause the board concern about its own exposure. It took a misstep by one of his subordinates in circulating an offensive video and public disclosure of a ‘frat house’ atmosphere to bring things to this point. (Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels: I have not resigned, Chicago Tribune, 10/19/2010)
But sources said board members were concerned that Michaels had publicly embarrassed an iconic Chicago institution, made many of its employees uncomfortable, and had aggravated an already-tortuous 22-month-old bankruptcy process at a highly delicate stage.
In light of those issues, board members also were becoming concerned that the behavior of Michaels and his management team might open them up to legal action over their fiduciary duty to protect the company, the sources said.
To be clear: the juvenile hijinks are wrong, probably illegal and ill-befitting of an executive of a major public company. However, they and the public embarrassment and employee discomfort are a peripheral matter in the grand scheme of things and have nothing to do with return to shareholders, or in this case, creditors, which should as a matter of law, be the board’s focus. Something is wrong with a scenario where a board is motivated to act in accordance with its fiduciary duty only when raucous behavior comes to light, and had no such motivation in the face of poor financial performance resulting in a protracted bankruptcy, and drastic loss of market share.
Something needs to be done about our corporate law environment when CEO’s who have enough sense to avoid personal indiscretions (or keep them private) get a pass on poor strategy or execution, and their performance is subjected to real scrutiny only when juvenile antics come into public view. Similarly, boards should have at least as much legal exposure when they don’t hold management accountable for a lousy job with their core functions as when they don’t react to personal level foolishness.
It’s a curious legal environment indeed when an HP CEO who presided over a doubling of shareholder value and a Tribune CEO who presided over a bankruptcy filing and deterioration of business value during the process suffer the same fate on account of extracurricular personal indiscretion. It’s also a reflection of a system that needs drastic updating to take substantive performance into account as part of directors’ fiduciary duty.