CEO sorry after telling staff to 'leave pity city' over bonuses

Put the $26 million in the bag

Video Hands up who wants to watch a CEO's mask of sanity crack. OK, roll the tape.

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While the clip mostly speaks for itself – everyone loves to see a beleaguered bigwig gently abuse their underlings over financial matters – we suppose you'll want some more context.

This is Andi Owen, CEO of office furniture giant MillerKnoll, talking to employees on a town hall Zoom call in March. Toward the end of the 75-minute meeting, she was asked: "While things are tough right now, how can we help our teams stay motivated?"

This insolence would not go unpunished. Owen immediately equates motivation with bonuses or lack thereof, saying she had received a lot of questions on the topic, some of them "not so nice so I'm going to address this head on."

She says "the most important thing we can do" is "focus on what we can control" in the aftermath of unpredictable events like COVID, supply chain meltdown, and bank failures. She stresses the importance of customer service and treating each other with kindness and respect.

So far so good. There's nothing unreasonable there, but the calmness dissolves when Owen returns to the matter of bonuses.

Don't ask about, "What are we going to do if we don't get a bonus?" Get the damn $26 million. Spend your time and your effort thinking about the $26 million we need and not thinking about what you're going to do if you don't get a bonus. Alright? Can I get some commitment for that? I would appreciate that.

That $26 million is an "internal metric" that the company refuses to discuss publicly, according to Motherboard, but it might be a sales goal that could bag Owen a nice little bonus, somewhat ironically.

She then propels herself to the hallowed status of living meme:

I had an old boss who said to me one time, 'You can visit pity city, but you can't live there.' So people, leave pity city. Let's get it done. Thank you, have a great day.

Gosh, I'm going to use that one on my kids. The problem with doing stuff over the internet, as has increasingly become the norm in the post-pandemic age, is that your freakout – however mild – is guaranteed to be leaked. It found its way to Twitter, where it has been viewed multiple millions of times.

Suffice to say the optics aren't good. "Andi fiercely believes in this team and all we can accomplish together, and will not be dissuaded by a 90-second clip taken out of context and posted on social media," a MillerKnoll spokesperson said.

The pandemic was keenly felt by the company, which is well regarded as a manufacturer of terribly ugly office furniture. As hybrid working took hold, there were fewer buildings to fill with uncomfortable chairs and the market was flooded by second-hand furniture from organizations that had packed up and gone home.

"Traditional office usage and layouts are not as relevant as they once were," Owen said in a March earnings call. The disruption led Herman Miller to merge with Knoll in a $1.8 billion deal to better weather the storm and Owen, Herman Miller CEO, took control of the combined companies.

Since the share price plunged, she has embarked on cost-cutting activities typical to multiple sectors right now, including the closure of a Wisconsin factory and laying off 162 employees, as MillerKnoll pivots to "more hybrid, collaborative work environments" and online sales.

What rubs people up the wrong way is that Owen took home bonuses of $1.29 million in 2022 and $1.12 million in 2021 on top of her exec salary – pocket change for business leaders, life-changing amounts of money for workers who enable those millions. Bonuses for fiscal 2023, including the CEO's, are yet to be decided, the company has said.

Reaction to the tirade this week forced Owen to apologize to staff by email, reproduced below:

Hi Everyone,

I'm sure you've seen the media coverage about the town hall meeting we hosted a few weeks ago. As I shared in my first note to you, it is my job to be open and direct, and to ensure that everyone has the information they need to row in the same direction and achieve the goals we all work so hard to accomplish.

As a leader, I try to always pick the right words and tone to inspire and motivate this incredible team. I want to be transparent and empathetic, and as I continue to reflect on this instance, I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive. What I'd hoped would energize the team to meet a challenge we've met many times before landed in a way that I did not intend and for that I am sorry.

Nothing will lessen the power and strength of our collective team. My appreciation for each of you is huge and I will continue to do everything I can to help us meet our shared goals. Thank you for your hard work, your grace, and for the commitment you show to one another and our company every single day.


Man, now even I'm pumped to sell some office furniture. Let's get that $26 million! ®

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