Confessions of a CEO
Being 'ruthlessly aggressive' took Dominic Orr to the top of the corporate world. And it nearly ruined his life, reports Fortune's Stephanie Mehta.
(Fortune Magazine) -- On a spring morning in 1998, Dominic Orr woke up as he did every day, in the dark. While his children slept, he showered, checked his phone and e-mail messages, and drove from his Saratoga, Calif., home to a breakfast meeting nearby. When he emerged an hour or so later, he stopped cold.
In the early-morning light, he saw his dark-green Infiniti J30 covered with deep dents. The taillights were smashed, and the body was riddled with chips and scratches. Orr could hardly believe his eyes. When had this happened? Who could possibly have done it?
His stress level was already higher than it had ever been. As the CEO of Alteon WebSystems, a Silicon Valley data-networking company that was poised to go public, he spent months on the road meeting with business partners and wooing clients. The few hours he had at home were spent answering e-mails, phoning potential hires, or reviewing marketing plans. Eighteen- and 20-hour days had often been the norm when he worked at Hewlett-Packard (Charts, Fortune 500), but now his responsibilities were far greater. He couldn't afford to screw anything up.
His home life had become equally stressful; lately the only thing his family did together was argue. The night before, Orr had made a rare appearance for family dinner but was irritated to find his 15-year-old son, Alvin, chatting on the phone, no doubt racking up another $200 long-distance bill. Orr shouted at his son for keeping him, his wife, Teresa, and their 11-year-old daughter, Adria, waiting to eat, and threatened to take away Alvin's computer.
Now, standing in front of his wrecked car, on the phone with Teresa, it dawned on him that the damage hadn't occurred while he was at breakfast, it had happened the night before, and he had been so wrapped up in work that he simply hadn't noticed till the sun came out. Later that day Alvin confessed to having attacked the car in a fit of rage. "I tried to destroy something that mattered to him," Alvin recalled recently.
For two decades talk in the American workplace has centered on "balance." Institutes and think tanks study it. Forward-thinking bosses are supposed to encourage it. Policies like telecommuting and flextime and sabbaticals are designed to foster it.
Even so, "the fact of the matter is that in today's job market there are only two tracks -- the fast track and the slow track," says Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary and the author of a new book called Supercapitalism. "The only track that leads to better jobs is the fast track. That means working all hours, it means giving up time with family, it means very large sacrifices."
Orr made those sacrifices willingly. But climbing the corporate ladder hadn't just stretched his time, it had changed his temperament. He prided himself on being "ruthlessly aggressive" at work. How could he come home and just turn that off? Now, he realized, the grotesque result of those choices was parked in front of him.
Several months after his son's outburst, Orr found himself in a therapist's office in Menlo Park, Calif. There was no doubt in Orr's mind that his obsession with his job had alienated him from his family. "I was astounded to find out how he felt," Orr would later say, describing his relationship with Alvin. "I discovered I had no relationship with my son."
And he was starting to realize that his lack of a personal life made him an unappealing boss -- and, to his dismay, perhaps a poor leader. Then the therapist, John Cayton, asked him a simple question: "What is your goal?" There were a million possible answers: Get his son back. Cope with the stress of working constantly. Feel less regret. Be a better executive. In an unexpected moment of clarity, Orr blurted out, "I want to die a complete man."
He didn't exactly know what that meant at the time. But in that moment Orr opened the door to a nine-year struggle during which his marriage would end, he would take a company public and then sell it, plunge into depression, drop out of the workforce, and take another company public, all while searching for a way to be a good boss and a good person.
Nine years after that counseling session Orr, 56, arranged to meet me, saying he wanted to talk about his "journey." I had heard of him -- I knew he was the CEO of a publicly held wireless-equipment company called Aruba Networks (Charts) -- but we had never spoken. "I've repeated patterns in my life," he said cryptically as we settled into a small conference room for the first in a series of long conversations. He stopped, then looked up. "Let me tell you my story."
If there was one quality Dominic Orr always possessed in abundance, it was endurance. Selina Lo, who worked with Orr at HP and Alteon, says she used to marvel at his ability to work straight through international flights; he would turn to his expense reports if he ran out of other projects in midair. (A fellow passenger who was trying to sleep once scolded Orr for his intensity in shuffling receipts.) While running Alteon, he regularly would get off planes on a Saturday or Sunday and drive straight to the office for meetings.
Some executives might have considered the birth of a child a reason to slow down, but not Orr: The day after second child Adria was born in Hong Kong, Orr, then an executive at HP, was on a plane back to California to meet with the CEO. ("Adria's mom still talk[s] bitterly about it," he recalls in an e-mail.) The following year, Orr traveled to a sales conference the day after his mother's death, holding up her funeral for three days.
It sounds extreme, but in many ways Orr was repeating the patterns of his own father. Raised on the island of Macau, Orr, who has four older sisters and one younger brother, rarely saw his father. His family was prominent and wealthy: Orr's great-grandfather owned gambling houses, the relatively modest precursors to the mega-casinos that now blanket Macau.
Orr's father had a number of business interests, including an antique shop, an import-export business, and a film-financing operation. He spent most of his time in Hong Kong, where the film and import-export businesses were based. When he would return to Macau -- roughly once a month, for a weekend -- the household would buzz as maids cleaned and cooks prepared extra food.
Orr thought it all perfectly normal. "I didn't see anything wrong with getting married, having kids, and focusing on my career," he says. "That's the value system I grew up with."
Years later Orr's father was diagnosed with cancer. The family's income stream dried up as the businesses were downsized, and Orr's parents and younger brother decamped to an apartment in Hong Kong, where the older man could get medical treatment. The family's change of fortune stuck with Orr. "I guess I always, subconsciously and consciously, wanted to recreate the environment I grew up in," he says.
In 1969, at age 18, Orr left for the U.S. to pursue a degree in physics from the City College of New York. He soon started corresponding with Teresa Wong, the 18-year-old sister of an acquaintance. "When he started writing me, I thought, 'What is this boy trying to do?' remembers Teresa. "My sister told me to write back, as a chance to practice my English." The missives evolved into a long-distance courtship, and the two married ten years after Orr wrote his first letter. He completed a Ph.D. in neurobiology at Caltech, and Alvin was born three years later in Pasadena.
Teresa, now a full-time philanthropist, says she only fully realized the extent of Orr's obsessive tendencies once they were married. "I was puzzled by Dom's behavior," she says during a telephone call from Beijing. "He could be so charming and affectionate, but he also had an explosive temper."
Orr took a job in marketing at HP and soon became a rising star in the organization, winning promotions that required the family to move first to Hong Kong, then 2 1/2 years later to Singapore. Even while based abroad, Orr traveled for work constantly. Lo, then working at HP, says that after he transferred to Asia, she would see him in the halls of the California offices every three weeks or so. "It was like he never left."
The long absences, however, were taking a toll on the Orr family. When Adria was 2 years old, Teresa says, she forgot what her father looked like. And the emotional separation between Orr and his family soon turned into a physical one. In 1991, Orr got a promotion to work with HP in Japan, and rather than move to yet another foreign city, Teresa decided to take the children back to California the following year.
The Tokyo assignment was a tough one. Orr had to downsize HP's Asian workforce through retirements and reassignments. Employees lost face with their families, and Orr says the wife of one displaced worker called him, begging him to rehire her spouse. For the first time in his skyrocketing career, Orr, who always thought of himself as a compassionate manager, began to wonder whether being a business success was compatible with being a good human being.
"What right do I have" to mess with people's lives? he asked his boss and mentor, Wim Roelandts, now CEO of chipmaker Xilinx (Charts). Roelandts lectured him about the greater good. "Look at the jobs you're saving," Roelandts, told him.
Orr hated the experience and longed to work for a company that was growing, not shrinking. In 1994 he accepted a job as vice president of product management with Synoptics, a midsized maker of data-networking equipment. He informed his family he'd be rejoining them in California via a one-page fax, a puzzle he'd made up that yielded the answer: "It is Synoptics."
By 1996, two years into his tenure at Synoptics (which had merged with Wellfleet Communications and changed its name to Bay Networks), Orr was offered the CEO job at Alteon. Here was a chance to build a company and shape its culture from the ground up. Despite his hard-driving ways, Orr had no trouble assembling a team to jump to Alteon.
"It is like a drug," says Lo of working for Orr. She was trying to take a sabbatical when he lured her aboard. "He gives you all the support you need, but he stretches you beyond what you thought you were capable of." Shirish Sathaye, Alteon's head of engineering, remembers asking Orr to help him with recruitment. "If someone turned me down, I would tell him, 'I understand, I just want you to meet with my CEO.' He never failed to win someone over."
The one place Orr didn't seem capable of winning someone over was at home. By 1998 he and Alvin were fighting about grades, school, phone bills, and just about everything else. Adria says she hid out in her room a lot. Orr and Teresa battled too, about Orr's long hours and lack of relationship with his children. Teresa says she also learned that Orr was in love with someone else -- Orr acknowledges that but won't elaborate.
Then came that night in 1998 when Alvin reached his breaking point. He was on the phone with a girl he'd met online. Orr had bought him the technology to make Internet calls on his computer, but Alvin had never installed the gear. Their argument escalated when Alvin refused to join the family for dinner; it turned out he and the girl were calling it quits. Later that night Alvin took a fireplace poker to his dad's car. When the handle broke off, he picked up his skateboard, striking it, wheels down, into each panel of the car.