Today, I wish to share the tale of a man with a troubled past, and of a company that used a very flimsy excuse to rid themselves of this man, all for the sake of signalling.
I call it…
The RadioShack Dilemma
A few months ago, I learned about the story of David Edmondson.
Edmondson is the CEO of a company called eRecyclingCorps, but is best known for his resignation from the CEO position at RadioShack (a company with $5 billion in revenue) after it became known that he’d never actually graduated from college, despite his claims to the contrary.
This seems natural enough. After all, who wants a liar at the head of their company? (I’m assuming here that RadioShack forced Mr. Edmondson to resign.)
But certain features of RadioShack’s decision start to look very strange when you view them in the context of Edmondson’s career.
When David Edmondson resigned, he was 46 years old. He’d been a VP or C-level employee of RadioShack for 12 years, and Advertising Age had named him one of the 100 best marketers in the United States. He’d been a successful marketing executive for a decade before he joined RadioShack. And after leaving RadioShack, he became the CEO of another electronics company!
Clearly, the man had chops. Or, at the very least, he was good at faking chops he didn’t have. And this was true of him whether or not he actually had a degree.
A simple fact that is easy to forget: Degrees can help you predict what someone’s skills are, but once you have actual evidence of their skills, the degree becomes irrelevant.
Now, you may be wondering: What was the nature of this fake degree? Was he lying about an MBA? About graduating summa cum laude from a top university with a BS in electrical engineering? Surely, he must have had relevant qualifications to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company?
Nope. Turns out that he’d faked a degree in theology. From an unaccredited California school called “Pacific Coast Bible College”, which now exists under a different name. He did attend the college for a while, but eventually dropped out to become a pastor instead of finishing his degree.
I’ll repeat that. Not only did Edmondson fail to acquire a degree that was completely irrelevant to his work at RadioShack — he dropped out of pastor school to become a pastor. That’s like someone dropping out of MIT to become the CTO of a software company. It doesn’t seem at all like a bad sign.
And yet, they kicked him out.
Now, I’m not saying that RadioShack made the wrong decision. The company was losing money and closing stores at the time. And Edmondson was about to stand trial for drunk driving.
But the articles about him don’t talk about the drunk driving. They do mention the fake resume. The media seems to see the fake resume as the real problem, and the board of RadioShack was happy to play along.
Perhaps the real problem was that Edmondson had lied on his resume? Well, maybe. But I can imagine lots of morally sketchy things Edmondson might have done that wouldn’t have gotten him fired. If he’d had an affair, I suspect that he’d have been perfectly safe.
My thesis here is that the U.S. treats college degrees as though they are holy writ, to ill effect in matters both large (the cases of David Edmondson and Marilee Jones) and small (every police officer forced to sit through a remedial algebra class). I’ll explore this idea more deeply in my next post.
But first, a few notes to finish off this rant.
Edmondson must have an incredible story to tell.
Seriously. I’ve been told all my life that I’d have to go to a great college to have any chance at becoming a corporate leader. But somehow, this guy went from Bible college dropout to CEO.
I’d rather hear that story than the story of how Steve Jobs dropped out of college and yadda yadda yadda. Jobs was a computer geek who succeeded in an industry with notorious disregard for credentials. Edmondson was a salesman who somehow fought his way to the top of a corporate world where credentials are hugely important. Walter Isaacson should write his biography.
This tragic tale has a silver lining.
Props to Radioshack for hiring Claire Babrowski as Edmondson’s temporary replacement. (She later became the CEO of Toys “R” Us.)
Babrowski, in a parallel story, began flipping burgers at McDonald’s when she was 16. Thirty years later, she’d become McDonalds’ highest-ranked female executive. That’s another story I’d rather hear than the story of Steve Jobs.
Irony is alive and well in the digital world.
In the course of my research, I found a site selling essays on ethical leadership to unethical business students who don’t want to write their own papers. David Edmondson was the subject of one such essay.