Sprint's Dan Hesse just got a warning notice from his board

A Wall Street Journal story detailed how the carrier's board is intimately involved in running the company. That's bad news for the guy running the company.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse speaks to his leadership team at a recent investor meeting. Roger Cheng/CNET

Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse should probably think about doing some networking on LinkedIn.

Today's Wall Street Journal has a rare, insider-rich piece targeting Hesse. A betting man would say his own board of directors had a lot to do with the story. No, no one on the board is quoted directly. But the picture the WSJ paints is certainly a flattering one of an engaged, hands-on board. They are served well by this story.

You don't see this sort of knifing when an exec is secure in his job. It usually means board members are trying to distance themselves from a CEO's plans gone wrong so they don't get personally sued by shareholders. Or they're getting ready to fire him.

Either way, today can't be a very cheery day for Hesse, who for better or worse over the last five years has become the face of the money-losing carrier.

Sprint's board, the WSJ story tells us, is involving themselves in negotiations and even smoothing things out when partners' feathers get ruffled. They're all over Hesse, and they're listening to big investors like hedge fund manager David Einhorn (If you read Michael Lewis' "The Big Short," you'll recall Einhorn's one of the few investors who realized the real estate market was going to tank before it happened.) "The board as been stunningly engaged," one anonymous source is quoted saying. "It sort of has to be because the company's not doing well."

Of course, Hesse could have been in the loop the whole time as unnamed sources "familiar with the matter" chatted with with a trio of Journal reporters. Do I really believe that? Not at all. But like the frustrated biologist on Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot," I think it's my duty to acknowledge the occasional whacky theory.

To be fair, Hesse inherited a load of problems. The Nextel acquisition that predated him hasn't paid off. Sprint's move to WiMax has been an albatross. Customers were fleeing before he got there. And he inherited dueling corporate cultures in two headquarters, one in Overland Park, Kan., and the other in Reston, Va.

But his fixes have come up short. The MetroPCS acquisition didn't pan out, nor did talks about sharing a network with T-Mobile. You'd think the failure of AT&T's planned acquisition of T-Mobile would have helped, but that didn't really move the needle. And even Hesse's Hail Mary pass with the iPhone 4S has done little to get the company back into the black. In fact, the hefty subsidy costs have dragged its bottom line further into the red. At the same time, he's asking investors to be patient as he embarks on a costly network upgrade.

All that said, the detail of board room machinations in the Journal was surprising. Board members of major companies rarely telegraph what they're doing (Insert joke here: That's because they don't do much and are happy to get paid for not doing much.). I once called every board member of a major company every day for a week for a story I was working on. Five ignored me; three forwarded me to the company's PR department, which asked me to stop bugging their board; and one agreed to talk off the record and really had nothing to say other than the company line when he did.

That's not surprising. If you're a board member and you talk out of school, you've violated the rich guy omerta. How did Hewlett-Packard deal with leaks a few years ago? It hired detectives who hacked private phone records of HP employees, board members, and reporters. A crazy, over-the-top reaction? You bet. But that's how seriously they take their secrecy.

That backroom discussions at Sprint are now so out in the open, that Sprint's CEO has been so embarrassingly called on the carpet, can only mean one thing: Hesse is close to losing the support of his board. And that means he's close to losing his job.

 

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