The story has passed its first blush now, and has faded in public memory into just another head-shaker about the apparently out-of-control lifestyles of CEOs. But the saga of how a star stock analyst, Jack Grubman, allegedly upgraded a stock as a favor for Sandy Weill of Citigroup, who in turn pressured an elite preschool to admit Grubman’s twin children, has raised so many questions about the abuse of power that those of us in corner offices can be assured of hearing it re-hashed for at least a decade.
In this case, things possibly got seriously out of line. Instead of parting with any of his own wealth, Weill allegedly approved a million-dollar donation from Citigroup to the school; Grubman’s faux rating cost stockholders from $100 to $300 million. You have a feeling Marie Antoinette would approve.
However, the question we must address concerns ourselves, and our own power to grant favors, dispense and receive perks, and massage the bumps in reality’s harsh road. In these days of populist anger, shareholder revolts, and media firestorms, what are the Rules of Clout? What’s proper, and what isn’t?
Will It stand the light of day?
The first thing to say is that Clout is not going away. Right now, I almost guarantee you, the SEC investigators on the case are getting preferred treatment somewhere for cracking such a high-profile case. Eliot Spitzer, the New York State attorney general, can walk into any restaurant in the city and the maitre d’ would find him a table.
Clout is part of society’s recognition of achievement. You can no more do away with it than you can stop people from approaching star athletes and asking for autographs. Success generates charisma, which produces Clout.
Unfortunately, in its effects Clout acts like a drug. And as is the case with most drugs, Clout can become a monster, changing personalities, taking over lives, and distorting priorities. So what’s a Clout-able CEO to do?
First, you should understand by now that we are in a Backlash Moment in our culture. the hangover from the stock market crash and other events, including 9/11, has altered the national mood. Where once the tabloids feasted on tales of the rich and famous, these days the open and swaggering use of Clout is going to bring disapproval at the least, and possible regulatory or media scrutiny.
Of course, you’ll still want to get a reservation in your favorite hot restaurant, an invitation to the better dinner parties, a sense of doors swinging open at your approach. The good news is you can still enjoy all that — and without guilt. You can even get your children into the right preschool. However, there are a few rules you should be acquainted with: What Clout can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do.
The cans and can’ts of Clout
Clout can: provide access; cut red tape of all kinds; foster relationships; get you choice seats at ball games, restaurants, and shows; get a job interview (for you, your children, and your friends); put you in a room with stars of sport and screen; place you in proximity to those with whom you might do a little business; and give you an inside track to financial backing.
Done judiciously among friends or at least colleagues, these favors and services will not backfire, unless you violate the laws of the commonwealth or those of common sense. For instance, using your Clout to cut in line at a polling booth is not recommended; neither is leaning on the local police precinct to allow you to park in front of a fire hydrant. These sorts of actions abuse the civic fabric. They also expose you to ridicule. The basic question you should ask yourself before any action ought to be: Will it stand the light of day?
Perhaps the saddest thing about Clout is that we are often tempted to make use of our powers to help people for altruistic reasons. It may be a grandchild who needs a job, a friend who’s down on his luck, the spouse of a particularly helpful member of the clergy. Yet even here our motives can be distorted by those looking at them from the outside — by, for instance, the better-qualified person who didn’t get the job that went to the grandchild of the unemployed friend who married a clergyman.
Nor does Clout necessarily help those to whom it accrues. It is wise to remember, after all, what Clout can’t do. It can’t buy talent; secure friendship or love; guarantee success at a job, acceptance of a proposal, or the approval of the markets cushion failure (in fact, it can perpetuate a cycle of failure); grease the track to a CEO’s job; or guarantee self-respect.
Using the example of a humble cup of coffee: You can make instant coffee in 30 seconds by adding a spoonful of powder to a cup of boiling water, but that doesn’t give you the right to say you’re in the coffee business. The same goes for brewing coffee, which takes all of five minutes. No, the man in the coffee business is the one who plants the beans and takes the years to grow the trees and harvest the crops. If Clout is all you’ve got, you’re really just instant coffee.
What makes the Weill-Grubman fiasco so appalling is blindness to what is best for a child. A 3-year-old doesn’t need a restaurant reservation, a cushion for failure, a bought friendship, or a pricey preschool — not to mention a father ridiculed, indicted, and turned into a symbol of all that’s gone wrong with the corporate world.
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