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If you ever get to Rome, the Trevi Fountain’s 86 foot peak is awe-inspiring, but no more so than Les Moonves’ shooting star as the maestro of television for over 30 years.
At Lorimar and Warner Brothers and then at CBS, he greenlit everything from “Friends, “ER,” “CSI” to “Survivor.” During his CBS network tenure, his name was attached to six of the ten most watched shows on television. He had the Midas touch and Wall Street knew it.
But even the greatest fountains go out eventually. For Moonves, the gusher trickled to a stop after the salacious details of his X-rated shenanigans in the CBS C-Suite were revealed by Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker profile. As a result, Moonves walked away from his job as CEO and his career epitaph is one that is more and more familiar these days. History caught up with another television celebrity and his penance was to depart the scene, as many of those targeted by the #MeToo movement have had to do. It looked like Moonves’ fountain had finally dried up.
Only there would be one more spurt.
Just as the CBS board once ignored his misconduct, they now create a new and potentially more dangerous distraction as the CEO departs. Moonves had an ironclad severance clause that could only be nullified if his actions were grossly negligent. In this case, the board’s worry wasn’t the money, but the women of CBS — when they found Moonves was in line for $120 million severance. We have Google to thank. A few weeks ago, the world watched as 30,000 Google women walked out of their offices to protest a $90 million severance payment to a senior executive recently fired for sexual misconduct.
For CBS, a ‘woman’s walk’ might mean the end. Talent, staff, and customers all have great options these days and networks are drowning in a sea of channels, apps, and streaming services. A company that pays off sexual predators isn’t going to rank high on the Fortune list of best companies for women. The board didn’t know what to do after Moonves resigned, so they did what boards always do, they asked the lawyers. The lawyers said to sue, as they always do.
Ensuring a legal opinion that confirmed a particular point of view, according to the The New York Times, the board hired not one but two major outside law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton and Covington & Burling, to investigate whether Moonves violated the terms of his employment agreement. The lawyers will reveal their findings to the CBS board shortly and they intend to show Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious non-consensual sexual misconduct…before and after he came to CBS in 1995.” They also allege that Moonves had at least four women who performed the role of ‘comfort women’ to engage in sexual acts at his discretion. If this wasn’t enough, the lawyer’s noted, Moonves had been ‘evasive and untruthful at times and to have deliberately lied about and minimized the extent of his sexual misconduct.”
Long after the CBS board Was negligent in performing its duty to assess, review, and confront the chief executive for misconduct, they now go the other direction and execute their governance mandate too aggressively. By taking him to court to rescind a severance payment they will unleash a Pandora’s Box of accusation, allegation, and litigation.
The board left itself little choice because of their failure to adequately address the Moonves problem in the first place. So they were bound to investigate further to avoid disgrace. It amounts to a form of corporate chemotherapy, try to kill the germ without destroying the host. They will find that this is hard to do.
The Moonves case will move forward into reckless litigation. After all, the former CBS honcho has nothing to lose by claiming the allegations are false (which they may be) or showing this was typical behavior, which the CBS board either did or should have known. In effect, the CBS board has given him a $120 million legal fund to use to thwart the company’s ability to move beyond this problem.
The most dangerous enemy is one that has nothing to lose, and I don’t see how Moonves loses here. Who wins? Most likely, no one. What will be missing from this story is the most important fact of all, and that is that the problem of corporate culture gone wrong.
Celebrity America values business achievement over ethics and common sense. It includes the news media and Hollywood, which represents a significant portion of #MeToo perpetrators. You do not need to be an investigator to question why a troop of young actresses march into the chief executive’s office for periodic visits of 20 minutes without any possible business reason to be there.
You only need an astute and ethical board of directors, who know that truth is like a fountain, it keeps going up and up until it goes out.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.
Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.
He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, startup founder, digital content CEO, and ran an internet venture capital fund.
He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to Jeff Immelt. His articles on leadership have been featured in the Arizona Republic, Forbes, Chief Executive Magazine, Board Member Magazine, LinkedIn and Medium via JeffCunningham.com.
His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.
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