By Tim Hayes []

We were going for our first mortgage many years ago, when our bank called and asked to see yet another set of documents.  I took them to work with me the next day and left the office building mid-morning to walk the three blocks or so to meet with the banker.

At that point in time, we lived in a town where the central business district was a little seedy and potentially dangerous.  The time I was able to walk to the bank coincided with the time when the only other people out on the street were the homeless, jobless, and fearless.  As a result, I was mugged by a young punk who pulled a knife on me.  Fortunately, I got away after giving him five bucks.

Never made it to the bank that day, but we got the mortgage later anyway.

When I returned to my office, the adrenaline still coursing, I composed a letter to my company’s CEO.  I explained what happened to me that morning, my concern for other employees facing the same hazards, and my willingness to volunteer to serve on a company committee to address this problem on behalf of all downtown workers.  After that, I felt a little better, having made my CEO aware of an issue affecting his employees and offering to be a part of the solution.

About three days later, my immediate supervisor called me into his office, and he didn’t look very happy.  He asked if I had sent a letter to the CEO about being mugged, which I acknowledged.  Then he said he just got off the phone with the CEO, who reamed him out something fierce.  Dumbfounded, I asked what was the problem?  And my boss said that the CEO had told him, “Your employee should have known better, especially coming from Corporate Communications!”

The real issue came down to the CEO not feeling as though he needed to interact with – or even hear directly from – someone like me so far down the totem pole.  He thought I should have pushed the message up through channels, and not started at the top.

That kind of thinking sounded like nonsense to me then, and it still does.  What’s worse, too many CEOs still think that way.  Take the recent case of an AT&T Wireless customer sending two e-mails directly to CEO Randall Stephenson, the first asking if his eligibility date for a discounted phone upgrade could moved up in time for the expected next-generation iPhone, and the second registering a complaint about the phase-out of unlimited data plans.  Nothing threatening or untoward – just a customer going straight to the top for answers.

AT&T Wireless’ immediate reaction?  A voicemail message from the company’s Orwellian-sounding “executive response team” thanking him “for the feedback” then following up with a warning:  “If you continue to send e-mails to Randall Stephenson, a cease-and-desist letter may be sent to you.”

Reach out and squash someone.  Beautiful, AT&T Wireless.  Just beautiful.

The company later apologized, saying the incident does not reflect on how it wants to treat its customers, yadda, yadda, yadda.  I think old Randall has been sniffing the rarefied air on the C-Suite a little too long, and forgets who pays his salary – the little schlub nobodies like me and you and this e-mailing customer who got swatted like a pesky mosquito.

When Dorothy and her Yellow Brick Road pals tried to get in to see the Wizard of Oz, the guard’s hysterical response was, “Nobody gets to see the Great Oz, not nobody, not no how!”  It sounded dumb in the movies, and it sounds even dumber in real life. 

CEOs of the world, get over yourselves.  Take a page from Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, who somehow responds to every e-mail he receives.  There are many reasons his company is admired, and that’s got to be a big one.

Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting