Confessions of a CEO

By Stephanie N. Mehta, Fortune senior writer

"I was going for maximum cost of repair by damaging separate parts of the car," he says.

A few months later, Teresa moved out of the house. She also made a heartbreaking decision: She knew that if she took the kids -- which she desperately wanted to do -- they would grow up without a father. The only way to ensure that they saw their dad, she decided, was for the two children to stay with him in the house.

So Teresa installed herself in a townhouse nearby and every day would come back to the house in the afternoon to see her kids and prepare meals before heading back to her flat in the evenings. "I cried driving home every night," she remembers. The couple divorced in March 1999.

Meanwhile, the principal of Alvin's school suggested that the father and son get professional help, and referred them to John Cayton, a counselor with the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto, a family-therapy clinic that does a brisk business in absentee-parent cases. Orr, who says he had always considered therapy a "sissy thing," found himself reluctantly meeting regularly with Alvin and Cayton, a psychotherapist.

Cayton thinks he eventually won Orr over by speaking his language, suggesting, for example, that instead of acting like Alvin's manager, Orr might try being his consultant. (Translation: Bossing Alvin around wouldn't help; helping him reframe problems and find creative solutions might.)

Cayton helped Alvin, in turn, deal with his anger, and over a period of months the father and son were able to start having civil, if strained, conversations. Orr says he was so impressed that he decided to work with Cayton one-on-one in an effort to restore some balance to his life.

It was an extremely difficult time to embark on such a quest. Orr was hoping to take Alteon public; employees were working like crazy to develop and market products, and Orr had never been under more pressure. He had tried to foster a positive, creative vibe at Alteon and had adopted the phrase "brutal intellectual honesty" as a rallying cry for the corporate culture. (He borrowed the phrase from Tench Coxe, a venture investor in Alteon.) Orr says he had hoped people would be brutally honest with themselves: He didn't want people championing their own inferior ideas, for example.

Unfortunately, far too many people at the company were being brutal to others. Orr once delivered an expletive-filled speech to a group of employees, not even realizing he was using coarse language until marketing executive David Callisch brought it to his attention. It occurred to Orr that if Cayton could temper personal interactions, perhaps the therapist could help him improve the culture at Alteon.

So in the winter of 1999, Orr invited Cayton to the office. "He introduced me as his spiritual coach, and I just wanted to crawl under the table," sighs Cayton, who goes by the nickname Karuna -- a Buddhist term meaning "compassion." Recalls Lo: "I really did not trust having a shrink in the company."

Cayton's approach -- he has lived in Nepal and melds Eastern and Western schools of thought -- also rubbed her the wrong way. "I felt this guy had no professional business background -- he went to Tibet and was a semi-monk or something."

Cayton wasn't able to change the Alteon culture -- Orr says the executives were too accustomed to the fast-paced style of a startup. And Alteon was about to undergo a much more dramatic change: In 2000, Canadian telecom giant Nortel Networks (Charts) bought the company for nearly $8 billion.

It should have been Orr's crowning achievement as a CEO. Instead, he was savaged. Investors railed against him for selling cheap. He got a barrage of angry e-mails from employees and stockholders. Callisch, the marketing executive, remembers tucking into a bowl of ice cream and watching David Letterman on TV when the phone rang: Orr was on the line, apologizing profusely for not getting a better price for Alteon.

"He was on the verge of tears -- he was that distraught," recalls Callisch. (In retrospect, Orr got a very good price for Alteon shareholders. Had he held out, the subsequent telecom collapse surely would have knocked billions off the company's valuation.)

It only got worse. Nortel required Orr to stay as a senior executive just as the tech bubble was deflating. Orr once again found himself downsizing. "I was in a crisis," he remembers. "I wasn't sleeping or eating. It was like my father died -- it was that level of depression." Once again he was questioning whether he could be both a good executive and a good person. Orr's crisis proved to be another turning point.

"Part of the problem with working with executives is that when they are at the peak of their success, they are too high to focus on real change," says Cayton, who now has his own practice specializing in executive coaching. "Change usually doesn't happen until they're in a conflicted, difficult state of mind."

In his conversations with Cayton in the summer of 2001, Orr happened upon the term hikari -- Japanese for "light." The word resonated on a deep level. Light is what had been missing from his life -- and the word conveyed the urgency of Orr's mission. He began to think of hikari as "speed to enlightenment."

But could he achieve hikari and thrive in the corporate world? "I made the resolution I would never work again if I could not find the answer to be yes," he says. On Oct. 31, 2001, he left Nortel and devoted himself almost full-time to finding hikari.

Orr now had time on his hands, and so did Alvin. A smart young man but a lackluster student, Alvin started taking classes at a local community college while still in high school and opted to get a high school equivalency degree. A friend of Orr's suggested he try to motivate Alvin with a long trip, and in early 2002 the two set off for Tokyo to study Japanese. They'd go to class, do homework, gossip about their classmates, and shop for their apartment.

"It was definitely one of the happiest and most memorable times of my life," Orr says. The getaway proved to be good for Alvin too. Teresa remembers visiting her son in Japan and seeing a changed young man, one who kept his room tidy and studied diligently. "I saw the boy I wanted to bring up," she says.

When Orr got back from Japan, he found himself resisting offers to return to work. (His Alteon stock was worth hundreds of millions when the company was sold, and he didn't need the money.) Particularly persistent was a startup called Aruba Networks, founded and funded by a few of his Alteon pals.

Orr agreed to invest in the company and to serve as an advisor. But he declined to run the business. Hikari beckoned. He set about reconnecting with Adria. Throughout her middle-school years, he'd never seen her run track. Now she was in high school at a boarding school in Pebble Beach, Calif., a two-hour drive away, and suddenly he started showing up to watch her run. He learned to cook so that he could share meals with his kids and, in an attempt to develop a hobby, started doing his own landscaping.

By the end of 2002, he finally felt ready to go back to work. He, Adria, and Alvin seemed to be getting along well. At age 52, "I was too young not to participate in business again," he said. Vivace Networks, a company in which he'd invested his own money -- and his siblings' -- was struggling and in need of an interim CEO. Feeling guilty about putting family funds into the company, he agreed to step in. He also figured it was time to test his newfound sense of balance in the real world.

Instead of being Orr's triumphant return, the experience was a personal disaster. Orr says the other financiers thought he was going to fix all the company's problems. In a January 2003 e-mail to the Aruba founders (who were still trying to woo him), he described his state of mind: "Even though I felt we had made great progress on the business side at Vivace, I declared to my counsellor [sic] that I had failed -- I had put in 14-hour days, I felt that I was losing my calm; I started to ignore/delay my personal responsibilities."

He helped the founders sell Vivace to another telecom-equipment maker in 2003, but he knew he wasn't ready to take on another CEO job. Not yet.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.