Fired from the company he conceived and co-founded less than five years ago, Mason on Thursday tweeted a link to a goodbye memo he wrote to employees and the wired world beyond. It was hailed almost immediately in some corners of the Internet as the best exit note ever. Only the perspective of time will tell us if it truly belongs in the pantheon of great farewells, but it was indeed an adieu worthy of ado.
"It's a love letter, a breakup love letter," said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a leading executive outplacement consulting firm. "It's like the loss of a true love who decided to leave for someone else. … You can feel him coming to terms with this."
Beyond candor, humor and self-awareness, Mason's graceful 372-word valediction shares what seems to be genuine affection for the company and employees he leaves behind. He playfully tap-dances over the artifice common to most CEO ousters, kidding about leaving to spend more time with his family. More important, he neatly avoids the bitterness that's hardly rare among those bounced.
Mason, 32, owns up to his own failings, touches on what he feels he has built and counsels the company to "have the courage to start with the customer." After a crack about his need to attend fat camp because of the weight he gained as CEO and a comparison of his quest to lead the $3 billion tech giant into its next stage of development to the challenge of surviving levels of a particularly difficult video game, he ends not with the boilerplate language about wishing everyone well in their future endeavors.
Instead, he suggests his departure might be best for the company and offers a markedly less detached: "I will miss you terribly. Love, Andrew."
How very human of him.
"There's a sad tone to the note and an explanation that this is an impossible job for anyone in his situation," Challenger said. "The world is littered with founding tech CEOs who couldn't make it through to this big corporate stage because it's a different skill set."
Compare Mason's missive to Carol Bartz's email to Yahoo's 13,000 employees on the occasion of her ouster as the company's CEO in 2011: "To all, I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward."
Doesn't exactly bask either Bartz or Yahoo in a warm glow, does it?
(Whether consciously or not, Mason would have had reason to want to remind people of Bartz's tone. A potential Groupon deal with Yahoo on her watch fell apart at least in part because the two CEOs couldn't stand each other. Chicago journalist Frank Sennett's 2012 book, "Groupon's Biggest Deal Ever," quoted Bartz as saying afterward of Mason, "He's going to have to get on a plane and come apologize to me." As if that were ever going to happen.)
Notes such as Mason's are rare for many reasons. Corporate severance agreements typically include blandly negotiated language on departures. Few executives have worked through the stages of grief all the way to acceptance when the sting of the boot is still fresh. Fewer still have the knack of Mason, a music student at Northwestern, not a business major, to hit the right notes and strike the right tone.
It's not Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium pronouncing himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" just weeks after being diagnosed with a fatal neuromuscular disease he referred to as "a bad break." But it's not "Take This Job and Shove It" either.
"Most people leaving companies feel betrayed," Challenger said. "You've been working god-awful hours to turn things around. You've invested your heart and soul into it, so there is a sense of betrayal, of feeling rejected, of feeling wronged. … A lot of people leave kicking and screaming and furious, and you've got to bottle that up. This goes on in interviews too. A potential employer will say, 'What went on at your last job?' And for a while, for some people, it's hard to resist saying, 'It wasn't my fault' and launch into (a lament) because they haven't come to terms with it."
Better to be the Richard Nixon of 1974 who resigned the presidency in shame but, in a rare moment of public introspection, urged his White House staff in his farewell address, "Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."
Avoid being the Richard Nixon of a dozen years earlier, who, after his defeat in California's 1962 gubernatorial election, bid goodbye to the press and public life by declaring, "Just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."
Mason's letter certainly doesn't wash away the stains from the many missteps he oversaw at Groupon. But it reveals in him an ability to communicate honestly and powerfully that was largely unseen during his tenure as a CEO. When he had the job, he relished his image as a bit of a goofball. Only after his ouster do we see evidence of maturity he may have had all along.
It will serve him well even if it doesn't serve Groupon.
"This is the farewell address of a young man," Challenger said. "Not that you can't be bitter when you're young, but there's a lot of hope in it for the future, and this is someone with still a lot to do."
Mason makes no bones about the fact that he didn't resign, and that he is resigned to what has happened. That shouldn't be extraordinary, yet it is.