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What you say or do around the CEO might sink your career. That's hardly a news flash. But a blunder around the CEO's spouse can be just as devastating.
Employees know to be on their best behavior around the boss, but for some reason, they will let down their guard when the CEO's spouse happens to drop by the office or makes an appearance at a company picnic or party.
Kerensa Vest is the wife of Herb Vest, CEO of the 90-employee online dating company True. They regularly host company parties at their home in Dallas. Kerensa has resorted to blocking the stairs with ribbons after catching True employees upstairs looking in her closet and medicine cabinet, not just once, but "virtually every time we have a companywide function," she says in an e-mail interview. The barricades seem effective, so far, but she empties the medicine cabinet as a precaution.
Most CEO spouses are women, but there are eight female Fortune 500 CEOs, and smaller companies are increasingly run by women. That means similar gaffes are increasingly made when employees bump into the CEO's husband. Le Gourmet Gift Basket CEO Cynthia McKay is married to Paul Gomez, a Colorado assistant attorney general. He says he has been approached by one of McKay's employees to fix a traffic ticket and by another to use his position to personally frighten an ex-husband into paying child support.
One employee even confided that she wanted Cynthia's job. "You have employees who act very appropriately, but I'm amazed at the liberties some are willing to take," says Gomez, who looks forward to Le Gourmet events because of the "bizarre things that happen."
The typical employee probably doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the CEO's spouse. Many don't even know who she is, which is in itself a mistake. The adage that she is "the CEO's CEO" is true, Kerensa Vest says, and what you say or do to her you might as well be saying or doing to him.
Spouses are not barracudas, they say. Sylvia Pifer won't say anything to Enhanced Telecommunications CEO Peter Pifer about an employee unless it's positive. Joan Platt regularly toured Hewlett-Packard facilities from 1992-99 as the wife of former HP CEO Lew Platt, but never told her husband if an employee impressed her or not.
Still, most CEO wives interviewed say that employees should be warned that the primary responsibility of the spouse is to protect her husband and his company. Encounters might seem superficial, and a simple compliment to the CEO's wife can make you feel like Eddie Haskell telling June Cleaver how nice she looks. But behind these seemingly innocent encounters, a CEO's spouse might have an active radar that can detect character flaws, measure morale, identify ineptitude, spot people who misinterpret a CEO's strategies and zero in on the overly zealous and internal enemies.
Who can they talk to?
CEOs regularly say that it is true about it being lonely at the top. They find few people without agendas and in whom they can trust. Their spouses often fill that vacuum. If she mentions something to him about an employee, good or bad, it falls on receptive ears. Think Laura Bush. Think Teresa Heinz Kerry. They have different personalities and styles, but they have their husbands' attention.
That means years spent schmoozing the CEO can blow up in your face over a single encounter with the wife, says Peter Handal, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training, which provides leadership, management and sales training to four out of five Fortune 500 companies.
For example, Handal tells of one new vice president at a client company who criticized the office decor before learning that the boss' wife was the decorator.
Amanda Finch remembers when she was dating her future husband, Curt Finch, CEO of 35-employee Austin software company Journyx. She met Curt at his office in 2001 dressed for a casual date in sandals, skirt and a silk tank top with matching cardigan.
"I'm petite and blonde, which can play into some stereotypes," says Amanda, who heads her own small software consulting business. In this case, one of Curt's employees was indulgent, dismissive and addressed her in a "dumb-down tone," which Amanda says made it clear to her that the employee had concluded she was CEO "arm candy."
Even after 25 years of marriage, Carol Keymer recognizes the tone. She has her own career, but often attends conventions with her husband, Ken Keymer, president of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. One evening, a Popeyes employee two rungs down from her husband asked Carol Keymer where she had gone shopping that day. It was meant to be innocent small talk. But she had spent the morning in her hotel room writing a paper for her master's program, then had visited a high school friend she hadn't seen in 15 years. The assumption that she had gone shopping came off as patronizing.
Don't let your guard down if the CEO is single. "The same holds true with girlfriends," says Steele Platt, CEO of Yard House USA. Ditto for a variety of relationships, says Andre West-Harrison, the partner of Keith West-Harrison, CEO of the 15-employee Miss Celie's Olde Victorian Inn and Spa in New Orleans.
You also need to watch out for the CEO's other family members. Handal knows of a Fortune 1000 CEO whose mother circulates at company parties, gathering intelligence on his behalf.
CEOs are the best judge of job performance, but they often rely on their spouses for character evaluations. Carol Keymer is a practicing psychologist who is almost always with her husband when he's interviewing candidates for important positions. "I have good intuition," she says.
As an assistant attorney general, Gomez "can spot a felon from 30 feet," says McKay. One of Le Gourmet's hires struck Gomez as "not right." He warned McKay, and the employee turned out to have a history of stealing and misdemeanors.
Kerensa Vest says one married employee confessed to having an affair. Vest says she has never identified the woman to her husband, but would do so if the employee came up for an important promotion, because the disclosure put her integrity in question.
Andre West-Harrison says he will show up with a dog and let it off its leash to see how employees react. Many customers of Miss Celie's Olde Victorian Inn and Spa are pet lovers, so he tests employee responses to animals. He says wise employees know he has influence and use it to their advantage by nurturing a respectful, cordial relationship. CEO wives also advise being friendly, but say wise employees also know they can't cross the line in an often fruitless attempt at becoming close friends.
McKay says she often sees female employees touching and flirting with her husband at parties, not exactly the wisest career move. Handal says the president of an East Coast company showed up at a party with a spouse that several employees didn't recognize. They "hit on her," Handal says. "Boy, were they in hot water."
Danger from a blunder
Brooks Stough, husband of Comergent CEO Jean Kovacs, says there is little that can come from a conversation with him that will help a career, yet a blunder can cause damage. Encounters with CEO spouses are mostly no-win situations, he says. But you can't keep your head down, Handal says, unless you want the spouse to tell the CEO that you seem standoffish.
"Oh, for heaven sakes, approach me," Kerensa Vest says. "Neither Herb nor myself are pretentious. We are especially interested in how to make the company better. Joke with us. Disagree with us."
Carol Keymer agrees. "Treat us as normal," she says. Her husband was an executive at Noodles & Co., Sonic and Taco Bell before joining Popeyes, and she is uncomfortable when a restaurant manager indulges her when there are 10 customers in line.
"I was always looking for employees to talk about themselves," said Joan Platt, who was among the wives interviewed who say it is their duty to show interest in the lives of the employees. But from a career perspective, it's more important for employees to research and take an interest in the lives of a CEO's spouse, Handal said.
Amanda Finch says she has seen employees "visibly flinch" when they said something in an unguarded moment, then realized they were talking to her. Then there are those who will intentionally say something derogatory within earshot of a wife hoping that she will repeat it to the CEO.
"A guide to the clueless: I'm an adult. I understand frustration with business and one's boss. I'm not going to tattle," Finch says.
It's possible, though delicate, to enlist the spouse on your behalf, says Allison Connor. She's the wife of Kevin Lee, executive chairman of online marketing firm Did-it. Connor says one of Lee's managers had sincerely tried and failed to get the boss to give proper attention to his customer service department.
The Did-it manager cornered Connor with his problem. She passed it along to Lee, a move that proved strategic and successful, Connor said.
But don't whine, says Andre West-Harrison. Employees often complain to him about his partner, the boss. He reminds them to go through the chain of command.
The lesson is that when the CEO's spouse is around, employees should strive to be at their emotional and professional best. But what about the employees' spouses? Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, an "eternal bachelor," adds another worry to the pile. He can detect what his employees think about him by having a conversation with their spouses.
When Byrne was running a manufacturing company, he had a hunch that one passive-aggressive executive was undermining three others. At a company picnic, the wife of that suspected executive spent some time with Byrne running down the other executives. Byrne's hunch was confirmed.
"I can generally tell what a guy is saying at home from what his spouse says after a glass of wine or three," Byrne says.
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