Recently, the Leadership & Ethics Forum invited a most unusual guest to come to speak at the Harvard Business School. You might expect a well-known CEO to lecture about how stealing is bad, or a respected Sr. VP to analyze why it’s wrong to hold your competitor’s children as bargaining chips. You might even hope to watch a beer distributor publicly apologize for spreading that awful rumor about Corona being contaminated with urine (you know who you are Heineken boy), but no.
On October 21st, we were treated to an hour with humorist Andy Borowitz, author of the Borowitz Report, frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Newsweek.com and NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. Toss into the mix the fact that he created the hit TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and co-produced the movie Pleasantville and you have…well, I don’t know what you have. Some kind of media salad. It doesn’t matter.
So why did HBS invite Mr. Borowitz to speak? Andy spent the first few minutes of his presentation trying to figure that out with the standing room only crowd. I mean, when you get to play Hawes Hall, you must have caught someone’s attention. This is bigger than Showtime at the Apollo!
Well, that something is Andy’s recent release of his book, “Who Moved My Soap? A CEO’s Guide to Surviving in Prison”. And let me tell you, after spending some time in Andy’s presence, playing a few rounds of corporate prison slang Jeopardy, and being awarded my very own Who Moved My Soap? Soap On A Rope (just as handy in my Central Square apartment as it would be in prison), I can safely say, “Move over Michael Porter, and take that Drucker guy with you.” This may darn well be the most relevant piece of business literature of our time.
Harbus: So Andy, tell us a little about your career progression. How does one go from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to speaking on ethics at HBS?
Borowitz: Before I became a TV producer, I was a standup comedian and humor writer at the Harvard Lampoon, so I’ve really come full circle, performing as a comedian again and writing humor for The New Yorker, and in books like Who Moved My Soap? I was a TV producer for 15 years in between. I had a lot of success in that time, but 15 years is a long time to spend writing and producing sitcoms, I thought.
Harbus: What inspired you to write this book?
Borowitz: I write a daily Internet humor column, The Borowitz Report (www.borowitzreport.com), and in the summer of 2002 I wrote a lot of columns about Enron, Tyco etc. and got a huge response. The corporate crime-wave seemed like a story that had enough legs for a book.
Harbus: What do you feel are the key causes for today’s executives to stray from the path of honesty and ethical behavior?
Borowitz: Some people don’t like it when I say this, but small investors have been part of the problem. During the stock market boom of the 90’s, when even sleepy mutual funds were clocking an annual rate of return of 40%, small investors felt that CEOs could do no harm. That atmosphere of euphoria often inspires those on top to misbehave.
Harbus: Any ideas on how to tackle the problem?
Borowitz: No, I have no ideas. As a satirist, I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution. I just point out when things screw up and have absolutely no good ideas about how to fix them.
Harbus: Who are your two favorite CEO’s gone bad? Why?
Borowitz: It’s hard not to choose Martha Stewart, but I’d also go for L. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco. He’s the only CEO who lived like a rapper. An ice sculpture that peed vodka – even Jay-Z wouldn’t have come up with an idea like that.
Harbus: Word. If they were in a prison knife fight, who would win?
Borowitz: Martha Stewart, because she would get her hands on the highest quality cutlery.
Harbus: What is your number one tip for the CEO trying to survive in prison?
Borowitz: Make sure that you’re not in the same cellblock as your former shareholders.
Harbus: You’ve been speaking at a lot of schools lately. What do you think about the students at HBS?
Borowitz: They seem destined to get to the top, which means that before the decade is out they will really need my book.
Harbus: Harvard is working hard on stressing ethics as part of the MBA education. Do you think they should add programs to prepare students for prison as well?
Borowitz: Absolutely – from what I can tell, business schools seem mainly to be teaching their students how to get into prison, not what to do once they’re in there. It’s amazing how once you’re in prison the alumni office stops calling.
Harbus: Why should every student at the Harvard Business School go out and buy your book right now?
Borowitz: The law of supply and demand. As the number of convicted CEOs skyrockets, the price of the book will shoot up as well. Get it before all the Enron convictions come down.
Harbus: Word on the street is that you have another book in the works. Can we get a taste of what’s cookin’?
Borowitz: It’s called GOVERNOR ARNOLD: A PHOTODIARY OF HIS FIRST 100 DAYS, and it will be out in January. It’s a book of funny photos and captions about Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Harbus: Of all the sections currently at HBS, which do you think is most likely to produce the highest percentage of CEO’s to end up in prison?
Borowitz: Just off the top of my head, I’d say section C.
Harbus: Anything else you wish I had asked? If so, what’s your answer?
Borowitz: Absolutely not.
Editor’s Note: Due to the overwhelming success of Andy’s visit, rumor has it that Russell Simmons may be launching the HBS Def Biznis Jam. Word on the street is that Associate Dean Karl Kester is the number one pick to host.