Learn From a Leader’s Firing: The Men’s Wearhouse Saga

Men's Wearhouse founder and leader George Zimmer went out anything but quietly earlier this week, in a public firing that led to consumer backlash. But based on what's known about the situation, it appears that both sides could learn something about leadership and corporate structure.

It was a press release that stood out like a sore thumb—I guarantee it: George Zimmer, the founder and longtime leader of the Men’s Wearhouse clothing store chain, was terminated from his executive chairman role on Wednesday without an explanation from the company.

The move, which came immediately before a planned board meeting (it was canceled),  was a shock for two reasons. First, the company had been doing well, with $2.5 billion in sales in 2012, an increase from the prior year, The New York Times reported. Second, Zimmer had been the face of the company’s marketing efforts for decades and had become a household name because of commercials like this one:

It’s true that no leader can stick around forever, but in the case of the clothing chain, the situation offers important lessons on both sides of the table—lessons you can take to your own organization, such as:

Know the signs: CNBC reports that in a note to his clients about the firing, Richard Jaffe, an analyst for Stifel,  suggested that a struggle over Zimmer handing over the reins to a new generation of leaders played a role in his firing. This is not uncommon; in a March 2012 feature for Associations Now, Leigh Wintz, FASAE, CAE, noted that the biggest issue for leaders reaching the point of an exit is a willingness to accept that it’s time to go. “To make a graceful exit, the CEO must recognize when it is time to leave and be strong enough to provide for a smooth transition,” she explained. “If not, you run the risk of the board deciding for you that you need to go. Everybody knows that when an announcement states a CEO is leaving ‘to pursue other opportunities,’ it’s code for ‘the board fired her’ or ‘arrangements have been made to secure a rapid separation.’ If you become a topic of conversation at board meetings, or if completing your performance review requires multiple sessions, it may be time to move on.”

Understand the downside of “The Face”: Consumers, by and large, don’t appear to be happy about Zimmer’s departure. A quick glance at the company’s Facebook page shows that a number of commenters are venting their displeasure over Zimmer’s ouster, many saying they will stop shopping at the retailer. This speaks to something AN’s Mark Athitakis wrote on the topic of the charismatic leadership last month, which notes that the downside of a strong leader is that they can overpower the public image of a company. “Things get done, and the organization survives, but employees endure the flaws of the person in charge,” he writes, noting that the problem particularly shows itself when the leader leaves.

Don’t let the conflict escalate: In a statement on his termination provided to the media, Zimmer says  a boardroom conflict got out of hand, leading to the public handling of his departure. “Over the past several months I have expressed my concerns to the Board about the direction the company is currently heading,” Zimmer said. “Instead of fostering the kind of dialogue in the boardroom that has in part contributed to our success, the board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns through termination as an executive officer.” Sound familar to your board? If so, be sure to check out Athitakis’ October 2012 AN piece on conflict resolution, which focuses on conflict-of-interest issues in particular but can be broadened to apply to conflicts in general.

Have you dealt with a situation similar to the Men’s Wearhouse conflict within your organization? If so, what lessons did you learn? Let us know your take in the comments below.

(Men's Wearhouse press photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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