It's a white-collar worker's nightmare: giving a presentation that gets you fired.
It happened to the chief financial officer of Motorola this year. And the lawsuit he filed afterward provides a rare peek into dysfunctional relationships at the top of a major company.
Motorola has gone so far as to claim it fired the CFO "for cause" — a term often reserved for suspected embezzlers — while the former executive says he was canned for blowing the whistle on major problems.
The case represents more trouble for the cellphone maker, which has been struggling with billion-dollar losses and laying off thousands of workers.
Paul Liska, 53, walked into a board subcommittee meeting Jan. 28 and fired a broadside at the Schaumburg, Ill.-based company's ailing cellphone division. Liska said a board member told him the next morning that the presentation "sure did poke a stick into the hornet's nest."
That was probably Liska's intent. But the hornets that flew out from that nest went for him, not his intended target — the head of Motorola's cellphone division.
Not all of Liska's presentation can be seen in the public records accompanying his lawsuit. Some parts have been blotted out by Motorola so as not to reveal business secrets. Liska and the company declined to comment for this story, citing the litigation.
But in the revealed parts of the presentation, Liska pointed out to Motorola directors that the cellphone unit, Mobile Devices, missed its sales projection for the preceding three months. Then, he said, the projections for the current year were based on rosy assumptions. In addition, he attacked the unit for lacking a forecast for 2010.
He finished by warning that with each passing day, Mobile Devices was making commitments and decisions "that will be increasingly costly to unwind should the board later decide on a different strategy."
That was a stab at Sanjay Jha, a rising star of the wireless world recruited by Motorola last August to head Mobile Devices and make it an independent company.
Jha has his work cut out for him. Motorola rode high for a few years on the success of the Razr phone, but as the phone's popularity faltered, the company has struggled to develop a worthy successor. Losses have piled up in its cellphone division, and the company is now propped up mainly by its other two divisions, which make things like police radios and cable TV set-top boxes.
So when Liska pointed to the troubles of Mobile Devices, it could not have been news to the board. Jha had also laid some groundwork with the directors: Just hours before Liska's presentation, Jha gave the board an "immersion" session where he demonstrated new smart-phone technology that Motorola hopes will be able to compete in the iPhone category by Christmas. Liska didn't attend this session, because he was busy preparing for his presentation.
Liska didn't get much of a reaction from the directors after his presentation, according to his filing. But the next day at 11 a.m., he bumped into Motorola's top lawyer, Peter Lawson, and asked if he should join the board meeting in progress. Lawson popped into the meeting and came back to tell Liska not to join. Liska says this was the first time he had been excluded from a board meeting in his 11 months with the company.
Five hours later, Greg Brown, who shares the chief executive title with Jha, told Liska he was being replaced as CFO. "Paul, you fired a shot heard around the world," he said, according to Liska.