Case: A Management Style That Made an Impression

Chairs? There is not much that can be said about chairs, right? Some are comfortable, some are not; some are cushy, some are firm. Since that is just about the whole story on the subject, I never thought I’d ever consider a column on chairs.

Then Bill died.

When I heard the news, I knew I eventually had to write something about the chairs.

    I’d known Bill for years, admired his inquiring mind, his wit, his management style, and his record of achievements, which was lengthy. He was a CEO with a considerable reputation for his successes, yet  every time I saw him over a period of many years, I never focused on his triumphs. My first thought was always of the chairs.

    I guess you could rightly conclude those chairs made a big impression on me. There were two of them in Bill’s office, utilitarian metal armchairs, chairs with an upholstered seat and back, the kind that are advertised in most office furniture catalogs. I have two of them in my own office.

     Over a varied career, I’ve been in many offices, the offices of buyers and sellers, the offices of top managers and middle managers, the offices of editors and publishers, the offices of CEOs and human resource specialists. Usually the chairs for visitors are comfortable, but just ordinary, and not very memorable.

There was that one legendary chair in the office of that famous Buffalo editor. It was legendary because it was bolted to the floor, thus preventing any visitor from attempting to move any closer to the editor. All discussions in his office were held at a prescribed and safe distance. I sat in that chair once, when he invited me over and offered me a job, which I eventually declined. But I did test the chair, attempting to edge in slightly when he was distracted by a phone call, and it surely was fastened securely in position. The man wanted nobody invading his space. He sat protected, barricaded behind his oversize desk.

   Desks are not just for working upon and storing papers. They do perform that insulating function. They separate the host from the visitor, forming a definite barrier, a barrier that sends a message that says, “This is my room and I am in charge here.” It was different with Bill, and that is why I always associated him with those chairs.

            He had the big desk. He had the comfortable leather swivel chair that accompanied the office of the CEO. He called me one day and asked me to come and see him to discuss a problem that he thought I could help him solve. I had known him, but I had never been to his office.

     When I arrived, he rose from his chair, greeted me with a handshake, and politely directed me to have a seat in one of the pair of chairs facing the desk and reserved for visitors. Then he sat down in the other chair, forsaking the status and the security of the big chair behind the big desk.

      This was nonverbal communication, behavior that I’d never seen before and I instantly recognized what was transpiring. He was telling me to relax, that we were both on the same level in his office, conferring to solve a problem.

    That was a first for me. I’d always had to talk to the person behind a desk. No one had ever before vacated that traditional position and joined me at midfield. It gave me a good feeling. I said nothing to Bill about it that day, or ever, but I always remembered it and chalked it up to experience.

   I also went back to my own office and rearranged the furniture and modified my style. I had a desk and a chair behind it, plus two chairs for visitors. I had always stayed behind the desk, but I changed forever that day. It wasn’t a big change, I suppose, but it was a significant one that I remember planning and executing. Some people noticed, including the owner of the company, whose office was down the hall, and who rarely strayed from behind his desk, one of the biggest in the catalog.

        “How come you’re always walking around and sitting over here?” he asked me one day. I never told him. I was evasive. I figured if he had to ask, he would never understand.


1. Why do you think the legendary chair in the editor’s office was bolted to the floor? Is the reason cited in the case the only reason for the bolts?

2. What impression is being portrayed by the case writer?

3. What other type of office layouts and flows could be used to create an impression?

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