If only more CEOs were like Andrew Mason

March 5, 2013

By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

Groupon’s ex-CEO won’t be remembered for his stewardship of the internet deal company, but he is likely to go down in history as writing one of the best and most honest goodbye memos of all time when he was sacked at the end of last week.

Two things in the memo to Groupon employees announcing his departure stand out: humour and honesty. This has to be the best opening line in the history of the departure letter: “After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today.” How many times have we heard CEOs, politicians and other leaders use the “family” card to disguise the fact they have been unceremoniously dumped from their role of authority?

Mason didn’t stop there. Rather than lash out at the decision to replace him he actually agrees with it. He told readers if his firing was a shock then they haven’t been paying attention. Indeed Groupon has been mired in troubles for the last two-and-a-half years; in the last 12 months the share price has fallen a whopping 75%, from nearly $20 per share to just below $5 today. One could argue that Mason should have left sooner, though we have seen other CEOs continue to stay on to the bitter end – think of Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers or the rotten crew at Enron.

Mason listed the errors he was responsible for that undoubtedly hurt the company’s share price, from using controversial metrics to rate performance that stoked the ire of regulators, to missing growth expectations. Mason was clear: “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote.

He is a co-founder of the company, so no doubt he has a nice package to walk out the door with. He is also a sizeable stock owner so if his successor manages to turn the company around then he could benefit financially. However, put that to one side – wouldn’t more companies benefit from their CEOs pulling a Mason once in a while?

The memo is part confession, part catharsis. As CEO Mason let intuition override “what’s best for our customers”, which he says is his biggest regret. He added that his departure allows the company some breathing room to “break bad habits”, habits he may have helped to form, and deliver a better customer experience. He ends the memo by telling his former staff not to waste the “opportunity” the termination of his employment now offers the company.

Mason’s memo has gained worldwide attention because contrition from leaders is so rare. These days people are afraid to admit failure, yet most CEOs will fail along the way. The nature of leadership means that sometimes you will take the wrong path. Most decisions are taken when the outcome is uncertain. Steve Jobs took the right path of cutting back on Apple products when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s, however, at the time he could not have known how successful the iPod or iPhone would become, or how slow the competition would be to catch up.

Mason, on the other hand, chose the wrong route; in fact the share price decline would say his judgement was disastrous. Now that he is gone, disband with his flawed vision and start afresh down a new path. Too many CEOs stick to the same direction well after the damage has been done, causing some companies to collapse.

The collapse of Groupon is not what Mason wants, not least because he was a co-founder. He has now probably delivered his most powerful message as CEO. His successor should thank him. He’s given the company and its staff the freedom to move on to greener pastures. In business, the shadows of CEOs past can linger in the hallways thwarting attempts to move the company forward.

If only more CEOs and politicians were like Mason the corporate world could be a nicer place. Being sacked doesn’t have to be humiliating or embarrassing; when someone’s time has come they should leave with dignity. No doubt there are greener pastures for Mason too – but first he’s off to fat-camp to try and shed those “40 Groupon pounds” he claims to have put on while working for the company.

Image — Groupon founder and former-CEO Andrew Mason attends the second day of the Allen and Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 7, 2011. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante

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