The Vice President Essay

Tom Brewster, one of the field sales managers of Major Tool Works, Inc., was promoted to his first headquarters assignment as an assistant product manager for a group of products with which he was relatively unfamiliar. Shortly after he undertook this new assignment, one of the company’s vice presidents, Nicki Smith, called a meeting of product managers and other staff to plan marketing strategies. Brewster’s immediate superior, the product manager, was unable to attend, so the director of marketing, Jeff Reynolds, invited Brewster to the meeting to help orient him to his new job.

Because of the large number of people attending, Reynolds was rather brief in introducing Brewster to Smith, who, as vice president, was presiding over the meeting. After the meeting began, Smith – a long-time veteran with a reputation for bluntness – began asking a series of probing questions that most of the product managers were able to answer in detail. Suddenly she turned to Brewster and began to question him quite closely about his group of products. Somewhat confused, Brewster confessed that he did not know the answers.

It was immediately apparent to Reynolds that Smith had forgotten or had failed to understand that Brewster was new to this job and was attending the meeting more for his own orientation than to contribute to it. He was about to offer a discreet explanation when Smith, visibly annoyed with what she took to be Brewster’s lack of preparation, announced, “Gentlemen, you have just seen an example of sloppy staff work, and there is no excuse for it!”

Reynolds had to make a quick decision. He could interrupt Smith and point out that she had judged Brewster unfairly; but that course of action might embarrass both his superior and his subordinates. Alternatively, he could wait until after the meeting and offer an explanation in private. In as much as Smith quickly became engrossed in another conversation, Reynolds decided to follow the second approach. Glancing at Brewster, Reynolds noted
that his expression was on of mixed anger and dismay. After catching Brewster’s eye, Reynolds winked at him as a discreet reassurance that he understood and that the damage could be repaired.

Case Study (page two)

After an hour, Smith evidently dissatisfied with what she termed the “inadequate planning” of the marketing department in general, abruptly declared the meeting over. As she did so, she turned to Reynolds and asked him to remain begin for a moment. To Reynolds’ surprise, Smith herself immediately raised the question of Brewster. In fact, it turned out to have been his main reason for asking Reynolds to remain behind. “Look,” she said, “I want you to tell me frankly, do you think I was too rough with that young man?” relieved, Reynolds said, “Yes, you were. I was going to speak to you about it.”

Smith explained that the fact that Brewster was new to his job had not registered adequately when they had been introduced and that it was only some time after her own reproach to Brewster that she had the nagging thought that her reaction was inappropriate and unfair. She asked, “How well do you think you know him? Do you think he feels that I was disrespectful?” For a moment, Reynolds took the measure of his superior. Then he replied evenly, “I don’t know him very well yet, but I think you hurt him.”

“That’s unforgivable,” said Smith. She then telephoned her secretary to call Brewster and ask him to report to her office immediately. A few moments later, Brewster returned, looking perplexed and uneasy. As he entered, Smith came out from behind her desk and met him in the middle of the office. Standing face to face with Brewster, who was 20 years and four organization levels his junior, she said, “Look, I’ve done something stupid and I want to apologize. I had no right to treat you like that. I should have remembered that you were new to your job. I’m sorry.”

Brewster was somewhat flustered but muttered his thanks for the apology.

“As long as you are here, young man,” Smith continued, “I want to make a few things clear to you in the presence of your boss’s boss. Your job is to make sure that people like me don’t make stupid decisions. Obviously we think you are qualified for your job or we would not have brought you in here. But it takes time to learn any job. Three months from now, I will expect you to know the answers to any questions about your products. She went on to say as she shook Brewster’s hand, “Until then, you have my complete confidence. Thank your for letting me correct a really dumb mistake.”


1. Who are the main characters in the case study and what are their roles?

2. What are the important issues?

3. Do you agree with Smith’s approach to Brewster?

4. Who do you think is most at fault in this case? How would you handle it differently?

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