What’s your Batphone?

Would Jeff Kindler, Pfizer’s fired CEO, have been able to keep his job if he had a Batphone?

Calls coming through the Batphone have the highest priority. The signal is unambiguous: if the Batphone rings, it must be important, and Bruce Wayne stops everything to answer it. But this system only works if there’s an agreement that the caller only uses the Batphone for urgent issues.

Compare this mutually respectful agreement with how Jeff Kindler handled his communication with his staff. According to a terrific Fortune magazine article, Kindler

bombarded [his executive team] with long BlackBerry messages filled with questions at all hours of the day and night. He regularly scheduled conference calls on weekends. He seemed oblivious to executive vacations. He expected immediate responses to his questions, making no distinctions between urgent matters and routine ones.

All that didn’t just make life miserable for Kindler’s team; it also clogged the company’s decision-making process. Kindler was a voracious consumer of information — often a strength but increasingly a weakness. “Jeff heard something or read something,” one former HR executive recounts, “and there would be a barrage of e-mails in the middle of the night.” The next morning, staffers would have to divvy up the directives. “It was triage.”

Kindler was guilty of doing something that all of us do at times: ignoring the distinction between urgent and routine issues, and choosing the appropriate communication channels. That overwhelmed his staff and slowed down their ability to respond to truly important matters.

As a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to be extraordinarily careful about what you say. As I’ve written about before, your words — your casual requests, your idle comments — have enormous impact on your team. The communication medium you choose is nearly as consequential. In the story above, Jeff Kindler seriously degraded his executive team’s ability to act because he was careless.

“Careless” may seem an odd word choice to describe someone who obviously cared intensely about the success of the company. Nevertheless, that’s the right word. He was careless in *how* he communicated. He was thoughtless about the demands his communication style placed on his team and the results of that style. By making all his questions a matter of supreme urgency for his team — and let’s face it, communicating via BlackBerry at all hours of the night screams, PAY ATTENTION! I’M IMPORTANT! — he sowed the seeds of his own demise.

Part of your role as a leader is to help people distinguish among levels of urgency and importance. Cramming everything through one communication channel — whether that’s email, IM, text message, or meetings — is a recipe for disaster. Consider setting general policies around communication: how will you and your team handle urgent issues? How will you handle important (but not urgent) matters? What kind of service level agreements pertain to each form of communication?

The Batphone only works if there’s a mutual understanding of its purpose and respect for the person on the other end. Jeff Kindler didn’t understand or respect the power of his BlackBerry. That failure of understanding wasn’t the only reason he was sacked. But it certainly didn’t help.

2 thoughts on “What’s your Batphone?

  1. Love the batphone metaphor! So true. But I’m at the same time surprised that at the exec level, Kindler didn’t have anyone actually questioning his modus operandi, pointing out the problems with the 24/7 deluge, or suggesting a better way to operate. At that level, are they all “yes men and women”? Or is this not unusual for CEOs in general and they didn’t question it.

    In today’s info overload environment, relying on your audience to sort/prioritize the email/im deluge properly is somewhat inefficient, lazy and at times dangerous. You end up having to create more and more noise to be heard – tragedy of the commons. Structure/process/guidelines are essential.

    We’re in this space for employee broadcast communications (providing ‘batphone options’ to those who need more than email and intranet home pages to reach employee groups). Will definitely pass this article on to our customers! A significant part of their internal launch process is determining governance: defining message content, frequency, approval and other criteria that would make a particular message or action item qualify for a ‘batphone call’. Cheers.

  2. Paula,

    It’s not surprising to me that Kindler’s exec team didn’t push back. This sort of passivity (or acceptance) is common at all levels of an organization, and probably even more so when the big cheese (Kindler) is such a strong personality and the risk of loss is so much higher (as for EVPs). But I think you’re right: relying upon the receiver to sort & prioritize messaging is absurd. Pull-based communication, rather than push-based communication, is where we all need to move.

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