Kenan-Flagler | Mr. Top Three
GRE 310, GPA 2.7
Kenan-Flagler | Ms. Big Pharma
GRE 318, GPA 3.3
Ross | Mr. NCAA to MBB
GMAT 710, GPA 3.2
Harvard | Mr. Low GPA Product Manager
GMAT 780, GPA 3.1
Kellogg | Mr. 770 Dreamer
GMAT 770, GPA 8.77/10
Tepper | Mr. Tech Strategist
GRE 313, GPA 3.0
Stanford GSB | Mr. JD To MBA
GRE 326, GPA 3.01
Duke Fuqua | Mr. Musician To Consultant
GMAT 710, GPA 1.6
Harvard | Mr. Bangladeshi Analyst
GMAT 690, GPA 3.31
MIT Sloan | Mr. Generic Nerd
GMAT 720, GPA 3.72
Darden | Mr. Military Vet
GMAT 680, GPA 3.5
Duke Fuqua | Ms. ELS
GRE 318, GPA 3.8
Wharton | Mr. Investment Banking
GMAT 750, GPA 3.1
MIT Sloan | Mr. International Impact
GRE 326, GPA 3.5
Wharton | Ms. Product Manager
GMAT 730, GPA 3.4
Chicago Booth | Mr. Indian O&G EPC
GMAT 730, GPA 3.75
Chicago Booth | Mr. US Army Veteran
GMAT 710, GPA 3.7
Stanford GSB | Mr. Techie Teacher
GMAT 760, GPA 3.80
Ross | Mr. Operational Finance
GMAT 710, taking again, GPA 3
Stanford GSB | Ms. S & H
GMAT 750, GPA 3.47
Columbia | Ms. Cybersecurity
GRE 322, GPA 3.7
Kellogg | Mr. Multinational Strategy
GRE 305, GPA 3.80
Kellogg | Mr. Defense Contractor
GMAT 730, GPA 3.2
Duke Fuqua | Mr. O&G Geoscientist
GRE 327, GPA 2.9
INSEAD | Mr. Jumbo GMAT
GMAT 770, GPA 3.7
Duke Fuqua | Mr. 911 System
GMAT 690, GPA 3.02
Duke Fuqua | Mr. Agribusiness
GRE 308, GPA 3.04

A Dean’s View of Goldman’s Mess

· Exhortation. Every parting shot needs a “so what?” Once the author has seized the attention of a reader with grief and loathing, one has a bully pulpit. Greg Smith urges a “wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again.” Whittaker avoids the soap-box, though his message is clear: dial back the new commercial focus of Google. And Andrew Lahde proposes the legalization of marijuana, a non sequitur so jarring as to turn grief and loathing into farce.

If all of this appeals to you and you are contemplating sending such a “parting shot,” consider some questions first.

WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING TO SOLVE?

1. What problem are you trying to solve? James Whittaker and Greg Smith espouse causes: the redirection of a firm back to successful origins. Andrew Lahde’s letter, on the other hand, is about ‘me’—the problem he is solving is letting people know about his retirement from active hedge fund management. The “parting shot” that says “look at me” is eminently forgettable.

2. Is a “parting shot” really necessary? One has a range of channels to air one’s concern about the direction of a company: management, an ombudsman, a meeting with the CEO, a private letter to the board of directors, and a meeting with an influential shareholder. One writes a public letter if one has a very important point and thinks no one is listening. For instance, a public letter might be an outlet for a whistleblower who discovered widespread corruption. Some of the comments on Greg Smith’s letter refer to him as a “whistleblower”—but his letter openly acknowledges that, “I don’t know of any illegal behavior.” He mainly reaffirms sentiments that by now have emerged in earlier articles, litigation, and regulatory inquiries. Similarly, the failure of Google+ and the shift in business focus at Google are old news. And Lahde’s letter is made redundant by the return of original capital and profits to his clients. If your letter doesn’t say anything new, then why write it?

3. What is the opportunity for servant leadership? As I have said in earlier postings (see this and this) you must be clear about whom or what you serve—is your missive directed to them or in favor of them? Greg Smith’s letter is clearest in advocating the interests of clients and the future of Goldman. But his letter casts wide condemnation on the employees of the firm: “I am sad to say that I look around today and seevirtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years” (my italics). Goldman has about 33,000 employees. Do none of them espouseany commitment to clients or to the future of the enterprise? Is this broad condemnation the best way to serve them and their clients, or to serve the redirection of the firm?

WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH THIS?

4. Where are you going with this? Genuine change follows sustained advocacy and action. Andrew Lahde has dropped from sight, as has Greg Smith. James Whittaker has moved to Microsoft, which several commenters mocked as inconsistent with his appeal for entrepreneurship. If your public letter is more than self-indulgent venting, will you follow through on your advocacy by shaping a vision and strategy, enlisting others, and taking positive actions?

5. Are you ready for the backlash? The commentariat on the Internet can be brutal. You should expect the attacked firm to reply vigorously. Some co-workers who may have been friendly will dump you. Your letter may well foreshorten your job prospects. You may be motivated with the self-righteousness of a saint, but as Mark Twain wrote, “Be good and you will be lonely.” If you’re not sure whether you are ready to bear the cost, return to question #1.

LIKE ‘KISS-AND-TELL’ MEMOIRS, PARTING SHOTS OFFER A GLIMPSE INTO A PRIVATE SPHERE

The “parting shot” is an art form. Like “kiss and tell” memoirs, they offer a public glimpse into a private sphere. But unless one has strongly affirmative answers to the five questions, the “parting shot” letter will likely be a costly, vacant, and ephemeral gesture.

How to exit well in a mood of protest? Focus very carefully on the essence of a real business problem deserving attention. Consider how justice is best served, from all points of view. Offer constructive suggestions. Avoid the temptations of celebrity and ego. Carry your message to those in a position to act positively on it. Frame your advocacy around serving some one and some cause.

If getting even is in your heart, then living well may be the best revenge. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985. He redoubled his dedication to design-friendly information technology, founded two companies, and returned to Apple as CEO in 1997 to lead the spectacular introductions of a stream of new products. He was a volatile personality, but sent no “parting shot.” Most observers would say his subsequent success well avenged his firing in 1985.

The decline in trust in business institutions has plummeted in the recent financial crisis and recession. One survey finds that trust is rising again, but that in the latest U.S. results, only about half of the respondents trust business to do the right thing. “Parting shots” are a symptom of this social and institutional stress. Writers of such letters must consider their frame of mind (are they stressed?) and motives. Do they want to be part of the problem (amplifying the stress) or part of a solution?

Readers of such letters should view them critically as part of the narrative of stress. Let us study them for insights on the ever-moving changes in corporate culture and strategy and on changing the things that need to be changed. And let us acknowledge that any “parting shot” is one imperfect observation of a complex and dynamic social system.

Robert Bruner is the Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. This post is reprinted from his blog. Read his blog posts on education and other topics.

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About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.