CEO arrogance or absurdity

I’ve met all kinds of people over the years, and I’ve come away from those experiences recognizing how important it is to be professional, respectful and considerate with anyone I meet.

CEO arrogance or absurdity by Nancy Knowlton

A number of years ago Dave and I and some advisors were invited to a meeting and dinner with the CEO of a large Fortune 500 company. We arrived at the meeting location first and observed the CEO arrive – he was easy to recognize from his photos. In tow were two women, whom we presumed to be assistants, and two executives we knew would attend. The executives immediately engaged with us while the CEO looked through a few papers. We noticed the assistants laying out a number of things for the CEO. The meeting took place as planned, and we moved on to dinner, which had been set up in the meeting room so that we could continue our discussions privately.

Important meeting

It’s not hard to imagine that having some serious business discussions with one of the larger Fortune 500 companies was a positive development for a smaller company with growth aspirations. With great anticipation around where discussions could lead, we prepared for the meeting diligently and had multiple perspectives on what value we could bring to a business relationship. There was also a level of curiosity about what these large companies do to maintain their success and continue to grow. We were positive and optimistic.

Odd meeting behavior

To say that the meeting was an eye-opener would be an understatement, but not for reasons that we had anticipated. It was the behavior of the participants that shocked both us and our advisors. While Dave and I have had limited experience meeting with Fortune 500 CEOs, our advisors had a wealth of experience, and that’s why we had them there as our advisors. When we reflected on the meeting, their reaction was aligned with ours – surprised, and not positively.

With the benefit of hindsight we likely should have thought something was a little odd that two assistants would need to come to the meeting to ensure that all was set up for the CEO’s participation. There’s no doubt that a certain attention to detail is required, but these assistants both kept their eyes averted while they laid out specific things for the CEO to consume during and after the meeting. During our meal the CEO indicated that he imported a special drink from his home country, pretty much implying that local beverages really were not adequate for his consumption.

Sycophant staff

This was minor compared to the behavior of one executive who could not have been more of a sycophant to the CEO. His endless compliments to the CEO, and the CEO’s obvious pleasure at the compliments from his subordinate about his astute observations and questions were impossible to overlook. One compliment might have been fine, but multiple excited utterances along the lines of “You are SO right” almost brought the conversation to a halt each time they occurred.

Disrespectful attitude

The CEO and the sycophant actually played out a segment from a movie that parodied the people from their headquarters region, obviously not their home. It was so awkward to sit there with the other executive from the company who was clearly of the heritage being mocked. It would be impossible to imagine that most people would find this type of behavior acceptable, let alone humorous. The CEO and sycophant were oblivious to our discomfort.

Multiple other interactions with the CEO during the meeting and dinner thoroughly confounded us and caused us to shake our heads. At one point we felt attacked and had to politely but firmly defend ourselves and correct the CEO’s misconceptions. Good manners and respect for others would not have allowed us to say and do the many things that he did.

No business outcome

As for the outcome of the meeting, there really was nothing. There was no business to be done between the companies – and we didn’t even care. We couldn’t see ourselves connecting with the company on any significant level, although we had a high level of respect for the other executive at the meeting.


But we did learn something from the meeting. Bigger and smaller companies are always going to be in discussions and negotiations. People are people – how you engage with them makes all the difference. Focusing on the other people, really trying to walk in their shoes, is a good start to building a business relationship. Keeping discussions professional and on track is not only comfortable for all concerned, it’s the only way to behave. There is no mileage in making fun of others. There really are subjects that are off the table. Dinner manners matter. A display of power and importance doesn’t help in establishing rapport with a smaller company. Opportunity exists everywhere and just because a company is smaller, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something to offer a larger player. Characters of all types make it to the top, but this one was unlikely to be representative of other Fortune 500 CEOs.

Our conclusion – arrogant AND absurd.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.