Jamie Lee Curtis and Niraj Shah: A study in contrasts

It’s my intuition that most of Home News Now’s readership are leaders of various sorts. Based on the comments I’ve received over the past few years, it’s possible all of you, this column’s readers, are leaders in your respective organizations.

With a part of my brain always working to identify ideas and themes for this space, this month’s Academy Awards telecast served up one on leadership. Beckoning me already, like the family dog plaintively peering up at the dinner table, was an email with fangs from Wayfair’s CEO sent to employees over the holidays. Next, seeing Jamie Lee Curtis present the award for best supporting actress fired the synapses, because juxtaposed by the fates of time are examples of leadership, one good and one not so good, from which I believe all leaders can benefit.

First the good, and I mean “good” in the Aristotelian sense: morally good, virtuous and, oh, by the way, likely motivational and persuasive. Jamie Lee Curtis, who won an Oscar a year ago for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” used her rigidly timed acceptance appearance to immediately give credit to the team, the wondrously collaborative “magic” that is any nominee for best picture.

“I know it looks like I’m standing up here by myself but I am not. I am hundreds of people,” she said to the glitterati in attendance. “I’m hundreds of people.” 

The daughter of two Oscar winners, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee then expanded her circle of credit to include all of us: “To all the people who have supported the genre movies that I’ve made for these years, the thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, we just won an Oscar together!”

This year, Jamie Lee’s pro move was leaving the Oscars early in order to grab a burger at In-N-Out. Respect with a capital “R.” 

Humility and gratitude

Both her 2023 acceptance speech and her 2024 beeline for a big, bad burger demonstrate humility, a grounding, and not only a recognition that success is rarely a solo event, but a gratitude for the context of teamwork that furnished the already accomplished actress with Hollywood’s Holy Grail. She exhibited humility, gratitude and the absence of ego, that great ogre of blaming, name-calling and scapegoating wherever it makes its demands.

In one of the courses that I teach, this week we have been looking at organizational communication, a field that emerged in the 1960s and that can be traced to the famous time-and-motion studies a half-century prior. I’ll save you the lecture, but important here is this field’s recognition and deep study of the now-demonstrable fact that workplaces are living, breathing, dynamic ecosystems inhabited by people who seek meaning in part through each other. In the language of this field, they exhibit prosocial motivations and prosocial behaviors.

Prosocial motivation is the desire to protect and promote the well-being of others, and it predicts persistence, performance and productivity. Prosocial behaviors are those intended to benefit others, such as acts of kindness, compassion, empathy and aid.  

In short, to quote Stanley Tucci’s character in “The Inside Man,” most of the time, what happens to people is other people. Healthy organizations and workplaces design, incent and reward collaboration. In sharp contrast, ego-driven approaches rely on coercion, fear and competition. From a bottom-line perspective, the latter might work, but at what human cost?

Freedom cries, as in tears

Aristotle understood, as Jamie Lee Curtis understands, that human flourishing can only happen in society, as part of a team, amidst something larger than ourself. Our founding fathers understood this as well, which explains the Aristotelian “E Pluribus Unum” motto. Out of the many, one. The current entitlement demand for something called “liberty” at any cost could come at all cost, or democracy itself, because if united we stand, the so-called culture wars are ringing alarm bells everywhere. 

To the extent a leader can foster community and belonging, a sense of a shared fate, to that extent a leader is recognizing what we share in our basic wiring as humans. This brings me to Wayfair’s recent communication with its employees and that communication’s seeming disregard of our evolutionary disposition toward working together. 

In what has become a first-of-the-year tradition at Wayfair, the company announced a rather sizable round of layoffs. As reported by Home News Now in January, Wayfair said it would cut 13% percent of its workforce, or 1,650 jobs. Given the company’s revenue woes and the Street’s general approval of “right-sizing” in the tech sector, the job cuts aren’t all that surprising. And they demonstrate once again that Wayfair is as much as a tech company as a furniture concern, if not more so. 

Recall that just a year prior, Wayfair cut loose 1,750 employees after shedding 870 jobs just five months prior to that. CEO Niraj S. Shah referred to these moves as “cutting the fat.” That’s the team spirit!

The profitability ‘journey’

This year’s cuts coincide with fiscal year reporting that has Wayfair’s revenue down 1.8% compared to a year ago for a net loss of $738 million. While significantly less terrible than fiscal 2023’s net loss of $1.3 billion, this year’s dip complicates Shah’s claim showing “one more definitive step on our profitability journey.” 

The irony of Wayfair’s three-pronged plan to “nail the basics,” engineer customer and supplier loyalty, and drive cost efficiencies is its sustained disregard for employee loyalty among Wayfair’s own.

In December, before the latest round of big job cuts and less than a week before Christmas, Shah reportedly sent an email to employees warning them that the company would immediately begin cracking down on “laziness” and foreshadowing longer hours and fewer perks. Now that’s “nailing the basics”!

Apparently denied the role of The Grinch in whatever local community theater he might aspire to joining, Shah stuffed yet more coal down employees’ stockings by “informing” them that the demarcation between work and life will blur yet more, because this blurring is the “recipe” for company success. 

You work at Wayfair. There’s more than a one-in-five chance you just said goodbye to a close colleague recently laid off. You’ve been called lazy. And you’re “informed” that work will press more into your private life. Where’s my medium drink, because that’s quite a combo!

“Working long hours, being responsive, blending work and life, is not anything to shy away from,” Shah wrote in his “motivational” email. “There is not a lot of history of laziness being rewarded with success. Hard work is an essential ingredient in any recipe for success.” Thanks, Captain Obvious! 

I can’t get satisfaction

A recent survey of 5,000 full-time employees worldwide showed that 96% will only consider working for companies that emphasize well-being. In addition, 93% said well-being is more important than their salary, and 87% reported that they will leave the employ of companies that do not focus on well-being.

Shah also declared that the trait he is most interested in is ambition, or the trait author Michael Chabon described as “that reliable breeder of monsters.” 

“Everyone deserves to have a great personal life — everyone manages that in their own way — ambitious people find ways to blend and balance the two,” Shah penned, presumably stroking a white Persian cat and laughing maniacally. “I think that is what we all should do.” 

Says the guy who had an annual salary in 2022 of $750,000 and whose shares of the company that same year were worth $671 million, according to Simply Wall Street. 

Wayfair-ers should be “aggressive, pragmatic, frugal, agile, customer-oriented and smart.” And here’s my favorite part: They should spend company money as if it is their own money. 

Says the guy with an estimated net worth in April 2022 of $1.6 billion, again according to Simply Wall Street.

“Would you spend money on that, would you spend that much money for that thing, does that price seem reasonable and lastly — have you negotiated the price?” Shah said, with clearly zero interest in engaging with his “team” in ways Curtis made look so easy, gracious and good. “Everything is negotiable and so if you haven’t then you should start there.” 

The email isn’t even grammatically or syntactically correct! I don’t know if I’m more offended as a student of leadership or as a grammarian. (Note: I don’t know Shah, so he might be a swell guy. I’m just going on his published comments.)

Given Shah’s views on his own workforce, we will watch even more closely the opening of Wayfair’s retail location in Chicago in May, because it’s one thing to operate as a tech company but quite another to manage customer-facing teams at retail. Well, gotta run — pulling up to the In-N-Out drive-thru now! And, yes, I want fries with that.

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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