Is “Chainsaw Al”‘s Legacy a Thing of the Past?

One of the business world’s most notorious leaders from the 1990s died at age 81 on Jan. 25.

As CEO of Scott Paper and later Sunbeam Corp. in the mid-to-late ’90s, Al Dunlap was well known for his hard-nosed, unapologetic style of business leadership. During his tenure at Scott and Sunbeam, he orchestrated plant closures and major layoffs, earning himself the nickname Chainsaw Al. (He also was known as “the Shredder” and “Rambo in Pinstripes.”) At Scott, he laid off 11,200 workers, while at Sunbeam he basically halved the workforce by around 12,000 workers. (He was said to be extremely tough on those who remained.)

As John Byrne writes in his 1999 book Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in an Era of Profit at Any Price, “Chainsaw Al was a creation of [Wall] Street and its ceaseless lust for profit at any cost. He came of age when the market routinely rewarded layoffs with lofty stock prices.”

In his book, Byrne points out that “True leaders are not ambitious for themselves. They are ambitious for their companies … . True leaders demonstrate compassion and respect for those who devote their professional lives to an organization. True leaders believe in shared sacrifice. They invest for the long term because they believe there will be a long term.”

That, apparently, wasn’t Dunlap, who was fired by Sunbeam’s board after being accused of accounting fraud, though he was never convicted of a crime. (In 2002, he paid $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by shareholders, though he never admitted any wrongdoing.)

Of course, Dunlap was hardly the first CEO to embrace such an extreme approach to leadership—nor will he likely be the last. But as many of the obits published in January remind us, he seemed to take heartless leadership to a new level, leaving a legacy few CEOs would want to replicate—or CHROs would want to be a part of.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Fortune magazine launched its 100 Best Companies to Work For the very same year Dunlap lost his job at Sunbeam. Around that time, it seemed as though more and more business leaders were beginning to wake up to the fact that their people (or, using today’s vernacular, talent) were their enterprises’ secret sauce, the key ingredient in their businesses’ success.

Which brings us to today. At least for me, the level of attention being paid these days to employee engagement and workplace experience is further evidence of how far businesses have come.

Year after year, when HRE asks its readers what keeps them up at night, they consistently rank ensuring that employees remain engaged and productive at the top of their list. (See our story on the 2019 survey results.) Nor is it likely a coincidence that this year an equal percentage of the survey respondents cite retaining key talent as their top concern. Why? Because they understand what it would mean to their businesses if their best talent walks.

This realization isn’t lost on their CEOs, either. In a Conference Board survey released in January titled C-Suite Challenge 2019, CEOs cited attracting and retaining talent as their top internal concern, beating out things like creating business models that are able to address digital disruption, developing Next Gen leaders, and the better alignment of compensation and incentives with business performance.

Needless to say, it’s encouraging to see both CEOs and CHROs on the same page when it comes to setting priorities. There’s no question this bodes well for the future of the profession and its leadership, and the kind of impact they can have on their respective organizations. The challenge, of course, is figuring out the right levers that need to be pulled to ensure we have the right talent—and the policies and practices that need to be in place to keep them engaged and productive.

When all’s said and done, HR’s ability to get this right is going to determine the kind of impact it will have—and the legacy it will leave.

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