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Parting shots: The hostile exit letter as an art form

Robert F Bruner 

Parting shots are a symptom of social and institutional stress. Writers of such letters must consider their frame of mind and motives, and whether they want to be part of the problem or part of a solution

How do you exit well, when leaving under protest? If dignity and grace matter to you, then what you do or say matters immensely. A couple of “parting shot” letters went viral recently. Greg Smith, a trader in London, charged in the New York Times that Goldman Sachs had become morally bankrupt. James Whittaker, an executive at Google decried the decline in entrepreneurship there. They are instructive, as is a third letter by in the Financial Times in 2008 that slammed his trading counterparties. Such extreme cases can yield insights about exiting well.

A reading of these case examples suggests that the standard “parting shot” contains at least three elements, grief, loathing, and exhortation. All three letters state a common grievance: things have changed and the enterprise is headed in a different direction than one wants. The three letters brim with contempt — and as the publishers of the lurid tabloids know, contempt sells. Every parting shot needs a “so what?” Once the author has seized the attention of a reader with grief and loathing, one can press for action: change the direction of the enterprise.

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

What problem are you actually trying to solve?
Whittaker and Smith espouse causes: the redirection of a firm back to successful origins. Lahde’s letter basically lets people know about his retirement from active hedge fund The “parting shot” that says “look at me” is eminently forgettable.

Is a “parting shot” necessary?
One has many channels through which 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. Have you exhausted these alternatives? If they aren’t listening and you have a very important issue, then consider whether you are telling them anything they don’t already know. If your letter doesn’t say anything new, why write it?

What is the opportunity for servant leadership?

You must be clear about whom or what you serve — is your missive directed to them or in favour of them?

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

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 will 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 first question.

The “parting shot” is an art form. Like “kiss and tell” memoires, 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. 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 your main motive, then living well may be the best revenge — consider who was fired as CEO from Apple in 1985, rehired in 1997, and went on 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.

“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 such a letter is one imperfect observation of a complex and dynamic social system.

The author is dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia

First Published: Mon, April 30 2012. 00:29 IST