We’re deep into earnings season, and there’s no better drama than quarterly corporate earnings calls and the “town hall”  meetings  for employees (otherwise known as McKinsey Masterpiece Theater) that goes along with them.  They are chock full of cryptic euphemisms that could easily mislead the novice observer.  So, as a BP Public Service™, we offer the following guide to earnings calls and company town halls.  These comments or references are made by senior management types during the “call or hall.”  Town Halls these days are just about synonymous with “crisis.”  Topics typically discussed include management changes (i.e. “spending more time with his family/pursue other interests, we thank him for a long and distinguished career”), a new comp structure (involving “enhancements” that in reality result in lower compensation; how does that work?), suspension of a dividend and/or massive writedown or loss, damage control of one or more messes caused by either lack of oversight or pure greed, or a face-saving, reorganizing-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic restructuring that allows Peter Principle managers to keep their jobs a while longer while the boat takes on more water.

That said, keep your ears open for any of the following:

1. “I don’t look at the stock price, and suggest you don’t, either.” I don’t look at the stock price because my stewardship of the company currently has it in the crapper, and if I did look I’d have no choice but to resign.  And if you look, you’d agree.

2. “Look at our stock price.” A true Unicorn of a phrase heard very rarely on earnings calls or in town hall meetings.  Uttered almost exclusively by Steve Jobs.

3. Anything having to do with “right-sizing” the company. At current staffing levels, the company might have difficulty paying its senior management the outlandishly egregious salaries and bonuses we’re currently receiving.  Consequently, we have to cut staff by X percent so our gravy train can keep on chugging.  This phrase is usually a favorite of CEOs who like to give the pretense of knowing what’s going on, but actually have no clue whatsoever (queue Stan O’Neal, who right-sized every department except the one that ultimately blew up Merrill Lynch.  Way to go, Stan.  The only thing that should have “right-sized” was O’Neal’s exit package — down to a single-fare MetroCard.).

4. Anything relating to “synergies.” A mythical construct where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, i.e. that two (or more) businesses that have come together via merger or acquisition actually complement each other.  More often than not, these combinations usually involve forcing a square peg into a round hole.  If there were truly “synergies” instead of absurd overlap in the majority of M&A deals, said deals would not be accompanied by announcements of massive layoffs — each side would continue doing what it does best and the businesses would, in fact, complement each other.  For example, Viagra and Cialis would be a terrible combination.  On the other hand, a Viagra/Red Bull NoonerPak™ would let you do your business and then fight off that drowsy after-effect so you could…do your business.  Perfect!  (Damn, is McKinsey hiring?)

5. “We’re going to focus on our core competencies.” I have no idea how to grow our business outside the realm of what it was when I took the reins, and any attempts I’ve made to do so have failed.  So we will continue to do what we’ve always done and hope that we catch a tailwind.  (Quick, someone get McKinsey on the phone.)

6. “I’m going to ask you all to redouble your efforts.” As with #3, this is a thinly veiled reference implying that the same workforce must increase revenues (top line), and then profits (bottom line), after which senior management salaries and bonuses will skyrocket.  See also: Productivity, Increasing.

7.  “We should discuss that off-line.” Said in response to a question asked during a town hall (very bad form to say to an analyst on an earnings call), this response means that the questioner will likely be given a cardboard box in which to pack his/her personal belongings and be escorted out of the building by security.  Takeaway:  Never ask a challenging question during a town hall.  If you are not going to genuflect before senior management, keep your trap shut.  After all, they ran the company into the ground much better than you ever could.

8. Anything related to “visibility.” In this age of short-termism, “visibility” centers around this or next quarter’s earnings, no further.

9. Any comment mentioning “respect” for a competitor. Simply an outright lie.  No CEO or his/her team has any respect for any competitor.  They have nothing but contempt for them, particularly if said competitor is kicking their ass.

10.  Anything having to do with “circling back.” This response to a question means that the answer is unknown or, if the answer is known but this answer is given regardless, it implies #7 is in effect, which means the question should not have been asked and the questioner is on borrowed time.  In either case, the bottom line is that the answer will never be made public.

11.  Talk about our “best ideas” or our “best thinking.” I would hope that senior management is relaying its “best ideas” and “best thinking” to the rank and file.  If not, why are they being so egregiously overpaid?  Are you kidding me?  Do you think I come to work every day to hear your “worst ideas” or “worst thinking” although, in fact, given what your “best thinking” has done for us, that might not be such a bad idea.

12.  All the things that happen “at the end of the day.” This is little more than verbal celery.  The only thing that actually happens at the end of the day is that everyone goes home wondering WTF senior management was talking about and how they can possibly be so divorced from reality.

13.  Know the difference between “tactical” and “strategic.” “Tactical” refers to grievous errors in decision-making to be made in the short-run.  “Strategic” refers to the slippery slope the company will be on longer term once the “tactical” screw-ups have been executed.  Related: “Strategic alternatives,” which implies that management recognizes the extent to which they’ve destroyed the company and are looking to pull a collective Stephen Slater while the worker bees go about their business, not-so-blissfully unaware.

14.  “We’re going to assess the situation.”  Whatever initiative we undertook was an epic failure (how about adding this to the next corporate tchotchke catalog?),  so now we are going to step back, wait a while, and hope that everyone forgets about it so we don’t have to discuss it on our call next quarter.  In the meantime, we will continue to work on how best to spin this to put it in the best possible light in the event it doesn’t just go away or we can’t sweep it under the rug.

There are dozens — probably hundreds — more.  By all means please contribute in comments.  Keep it pithy.

H/T to Maggie for her help.

Category: Corporate Management, Humor

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

24 Responses to “TBP Guide to Earnings Calls & Town Halls”

  1. ashpelham2 says:

    ++++1,000!!!

    I’ve heard them all at one point or another!

    “We are going to roll up our sleeves together, and improve the company”- You are going to work longer hours, for the same wage, and I will be breathing down your neck for a few weeks until I’m tired of doing it.

  2. dsawy says:

    Dude, you should have been on our Bullshit Bingo team(s) in Silly Valley.

  3. xatta says:

    Yep, I once approached my manager about changing my job duties and he agreed to “circle back”. Three weeks later, my job was eliminated.

  4. greg says:

    “We like our strategy at this point.” Although nothing, and I mean nothing we have done over the past ten years has in any way shape or form translated to our bottom line, I can’t help feeling we are still on the right track. I mean go to any main train station terminal and you’ll see lots of tracks, not just one, and well, we feel, um, that we chose not only one of those, ah, tracks, but the right track. Most often articulated by Steve Ballmer.

  5. formerlawyer says:

    “Continuos improvement…” We do the same damn stupid things that we have always done.

  6. TrndTrader says:

    Perhaps on the other side of the coin…back in 1993 when IBM was on the verge of collapse and had finally convinced Lou Gerstner to take the job, he was asked about what his “vision” was for IBM (most all employees were disillusioned with what IBM had become and were desperately seeking a path forward they could believe in). His comment was something to the effect of: ‘vision? We need to drain the swamp first’. Many long term employees were horrified, but it was clear that this guy was going to force this company back in line.

  7. diogeron says:

    Having sat through more of these meetings than I would like to admit in my career, this post certainly resonates with me.

    What used to amuse me more than anything, was that the use of pet phrases usually seeps into the corporate lexicon from the top down. If a CEO and his/her management team would start using a particular buzzword or phrase consistently in communications with employees, one could bet $ that within a short period of time, middle management would start using the same words with their team. Eventually, even the maintenance people would start saying things like, “Well, to blue sky here a bit, I think we need a top down executive decision to nail down where to put these tables to stimulate cross-cultural communication to exploit the diversity of our team. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats and we don’t want anybody drifting at sea here at Dunderhead Milfland.” Or something like that….

  8. Almitra says:

    Capital tends to accumulate long after the individual or group that had a capital idea has moved on.

    From poverty to riches and back to poverty again in three generations occurs on the greater scale as well.

    The U.S. is a victim of its own success. It is not that those now in charge are lesser than those who built the empire, it is only that their timing is less fortuitous.

  9. Byno says:

    “Dead numbers” – We screwed the pooch last month, but you can’t focus on last month; those are dead numbers. Focus on what we’re doing this month, unless we manage to screw that up too, then those will be dead numbers next month.

    “Control the controllables” – Everything that we’re doing right is the result of us controlling the controllables. Everything going wrong is not really our fault since it’s beyond our control and there’s absolutely no chance we didn’t see the threats coming our had an epic strategy fail.

    “Block and tackle” – Apparently, we’re struggling with getting the most basic aspects of our business right, so we’re going to focus on what the folks in the mail room know we should be doing since everyone in senior leadership forgot what it is we actually do.

    And, among the under-35 crowd, “fuck it, we’ll do it live” – Originally a Bill O’Reilly phrase, has now morphed into a substitute for “fire, ready, aim;” we’re not going to explore the risks or threats to this idea, we’re just gonna roll it out and let the chips fall where they may.

  10. This one’s for both government and corporate matters:

    “Mistakes were made” is an euphemism for totally and intentionally and personally fucking something up. A good example would be the “intelligence” that provided Saddam Hussein was stockpiling WMD after it was discovered that in fact he wasn’t. Indeed, “Mistakes were made in our intelligence-gathering.

    Since the subject of the sentence (mistakes) does not denote who committed the mistakes, it leaves the matter of blame in an ephemeral neverland, wispfully floating by in the listener’s mind that yes, “mistakes were made”, never mind that they were intentional and therefore not mistakes, and never mind who made them. The person claiming that mistakes were made is almost always the one that actually made them, or is his/her spokesperson.

  11. MorticiaA says:

    Here’s one from my own corporate-cheerleader tour: “Our strategy is gaining momentum.”

    Translation: “We’re gonna continue to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ==> Tranlsation: “Insanity.”

  12. rip says:

    Nice.

    In general, corporate town hall meetings are tightly scripted, pretending to be an opportunity for “Associates” to be inspired and make supportive comments, voice concerns. Shareholder town halls, even more so. They probably have security people looking to trap rabble-rousers at the entrance. Corporate security badge not enough.

    Once experienced a corporate town hall meeting where a “new” division” head was being installed and challenging associates to double profits in two years. Close friend of the CEO, who did not last long – bean counter. Previous CEO died unexpectedly and the current ceo was one of two left on the executive committee. The other was HR and they never make CEO.

    So the new division head made his spiel and opened the rather floor to comments and questions.

    One rather balsy, devil may care person that had enough experience and credibility with the executives to escape a firing squad asked:

    “What can you share with us from your previous experience to justify our trust?”

    (His previous divison never made a nickle)

    Sudden end of meeting. And anyone that was there was agape.

    Fortunately one of those rare opportunities that no longer exist.

    And the new division head was gone before the end of two years.

  13. rip says:

    Edit: Unfortunately one those opportunities that no longer exist. Don’t mess with your bonus.

  14. 1. “I don’t look at the stock price, and suggest you don’t, either.”

    What they mean:

    Of course, all my insider trading is done and we already have plans to reset the options I’m forced to hold due to these stupid rules so don’t worry about it

  15. nemo says:

    “All the things that happen “at the end of the day.” This is little more than verbal celery.”

    A meaningless verbal crutch similar to “when all is said and done” or “if you will” or “the whole nine yards” or “the bottom line is” or “the take-home story”. Rely on those phrases enough and the effect is like a polite form of Tourette Syndrome.

  16. Cdale_dog says:

    “It is what it is” meaning we’re f*cked, so just accept the fate that awaits us all. Or, “It’s a beautiful thing”, when we made record profits and all of us were getting a bonus that we will never again get the rest of our lives.

  17. MorticiaA says:

    BTW, here’s one of my favorite websites: Unsuck It. It’s a corporate-speak translator. You enter some typical corporate jargon and it gives you the “normal” people translation. Fun for the whole family.

    http://unsuck-it.com/

  18. taikodrum says:

    “Context”

    Translation- There’s no way in hell an informed and intelligent person can look back at the reality of the stituation/environment at the time and explain our actions/decisions, so we’ll construct a fantasy land alternate reality which we can back into.

  19. NeutralObserver says:

    Beautiful Invictus!! I/we love the above even if it is describes the kabuki version of our own demise. One has to ask why these townhall meetings continue if we all know they are Wizard-of-Oz theater. I think the answer is that most employees and even a lot of analysts are comforted hearing lies they want to hear. Sure some of us are cynics and don’t want to drink the Koolaid, but most people just want to take the Blue Pill.

    Speaking of Koolaid, any phrase referring to a bus means you need to drink too and get in line. Examples would be “getting on the bus”, getting people in the right seats on the bus’, “getting some people off the bus”, “the buss is leaving”, etc.

  20. sjankis630 says:

    These are awesome. Some people here owe me a new keyboard.
    I actually attended a meeting( smaller event) where said executive who was worried about our abilities in a certain area used the following phrase.
    “We need to know whether or not we can hit our own ass with a banjo.”
    I am not kidding.

  21. taikodrum says:

    Oh, I forgot two more:

    “bandwidth”

    translation: I don’t have clue one as to the time, money or number of people it will take to get this job done, nor do I have an idea of the scope of work of the units involved, so I will sprinkle in bandwidth and hope that the people listening will wonder “WTF did he mean by bandwidth, whose bandwidth and in what context (see 4:00 pm comment)” rather than ask me those questions before I can bail out of here.

    “double back”

    translation: We will have beacoup meetings and conference calls in an attempt to identify reasons for our recent epic failures and develop an action item list to correct identified problems. After enough meetings/calls have taken place to impress the higher-ups and make everyone feel like momentous things have been accomplished, recent epic failures will be blamed on “lack of bandwidth” and actions taken in an “incorrect context”. Said action item list will have the appropriate level of projected CYA necessary and recommend “increased bandwidth” and “accurate context” as remedies.

  22. philipat says:

    “Strategic Acquisition”

    We have screwed things up so badly that the best way to make our numbers totally incomprehensible is to acquire another screw up, thereby totally obfuscating the financial statements.

    This approach is also known as “Tieing 2 lame dogs together by their good legs”.

  23. twoifbysea says:

    On earnings calls….”Can you do a deep dive?” means “can you expound in detail”, for those who lack proper English skills because they took only quant and econ courses in school, and don’t read books. Also, note on earnings calls there’s always an analyst who begins with “most of my questions have been answered, but….” to let all listeners know that he’s so smart that he already wondered about all that everyone else asked. Also, CEOS ad CFOS are no never “sir” “mam” or “Mr.”, they are “guys”. “Hey guys”. Also, there tend to be a lot of maids on earnings calls…”just a few housekeeping items”. Lastly of note, when a CEO dodges a question, the analyst never calls him on it, he’ll move on to the next question. “Let’s take that offline” means “you just asked me a question that exposes incompetence, can we have a private talk in a quasi-legal fashion, nearly breaching insider trading laws but nobody will know.”

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