Lessons in Emotional Connection: Men’s Wearhouse

In 1973, George Zimmer founded Men’s Wearhouse. The brand quickly became a success and we all got used to seeing his face on TV guaranteeing men that “You’re going to like the way you look”. Zimmer was the face of his company and his company was doing well. In 2011 he passed the CEO position over to Douglas Ewert. At that point, Zimmer held his Executive Chairman role. Unfortunately, board differences and the inability to address those differences effectively took over the board, and Zimmer was fired from his company in 2013.

So what happened? Luckily for us, Zimmer and the board have been fairly candid about the situation so we have a pretty good idea of what was going on. Men’s Wearhouse is an excellent (and tragic) example of what can happen when the board does not know how to develop an environment of safety for its board members.

According to the board, Zimmer refused to support the new management team unless they “acquiesced to his demands”. Clearly, Zimmer cared about Men’s Wearhouse – he had been building this company for almost 40 years. When we care about something and we don’t feel like we are being heard, we have an instinctual reaction to reach for support and then push when we don’t get the response we need. In this case, Zimmer likely shared his concerns and was met with criticism or indifference. He reacted by pushing and criticizing the new management and shutting his fellow board members out.

Clearly, no one on the board understood the emotional connection, as this disconnection fed on itself and led to a negative cycle that got out of control.

This is very common in all types of boards simply because there has not been much light shed on the topic of emotional awareness. In 2013, the board informed Zimmer that he no longer worked for Men’s Wearhouse and escorted him out of the building. This could have gone much differently. In an emotionally balanced board, members would be able to speak openly about their concerns and then discuss options. When they get off track, the board leader is able to bring them back to emotional safety by reminding everyone that they are on the same team and want to company to succeed, keeping the brain calm and non-reactive Conflict is not the problem. Conflict is inflammation. The virus is emotional disconnection. As the leader of the board, Zimmer should have focused on becoming aware of his emotions and how the effect it had on his fellow board members.

The interesting thing here is that even when Zimmer was removed from the board, the board still had issues with disconnection. Boards who make poor decisions are boards that are emotionally disconnected. After the chaos of removing Zimmer, the board decided to acquire Jos. A Banks, a discount suit store for $1.8 billion.

This not only added a huge amount of debt to Men’s Wearhouse but eventually dropped their stock price from the mid-sixties to the mid-teens.

Most analysts blame the performance on the fact that the two companies were too similar or that their customer base was too different, but we see profitable mergers between similar companies all the time – even when their customer bases are different. The problem is disconnection.

When dealing with an M&A deal, boards must be in emotional balance. This allows ideas to flow and options to fully be considered. When everyone is emotionally connected, they can perform at their highest level. It’s kind of like a basketball team. You can recruit the best players, hire the strongest coaches, and develop the most effective strategy, but if they don’t know how to work together you have nothing.

The emotional connection is how people work together, and Men’s Wearhouse didn’t have it.

Men’s Wearhouse has rebranded to better incorporate Jos. A Banks into their company. They are now called Tailored Brands. Their stock is still in the mid-teens and the company is barely surviving. Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders and shareholders to make the company they represent as profitable as they can.

It is sad to see such a strong company lose value because board members couldn’t face their emotions and address the human condition in the boardroom, but their struggle is not uncommon.

The Men’s Wearhouse board members do care about the company and they are doing what they think is best for it, but disconnection is clouding their judgment.

The truly amazing part of this story is that it is not over yet. This board can still turn it around. We’ve seen companies bounce back from terrible transitions and horrible hostile takeover attempts – the key to the turn around is emotions. We are able to take those awful negative cycles and turn them into positive cycles that emphasize collaboration, encouragement, and trust. It all through understanding and harnessing the power of emotional connection.

If you would like to learn more about emotional connection, please contact us.