How Dominic Orr almost ruined his life.
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 hpe , 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.
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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 Super-capitalism. “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—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.”
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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.
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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. 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. “I was going for maximum cost of repair by damaging separate parts of the car,” he says.
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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 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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Orr retreated again, building a new house—he took pains to use the same floor plan as the family’s original home so as not to upset Adria—and participating in a philanthropy workshop sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation. For Orr, who had never been particularly civic-minded, the experience was formative. Until then he’d thought of “dying a complete man” only in terms of his own life. Now he realized there was another component. In March 2005, just a month after moving into his remodeled home, Orr went to West Africa and began working with Inveneo, a group that helps provide Internet connections in remote and poor areas.
Early last year, Aruba Networks came calling again. The company was getting ready for its IPO, and the board wanted a CEO with a track record taking companies public. One name kept coming up: Dominic Orr. It had been three years since the Vivace debacle, and Orr thought he might be ready. A talk with Adria, by then a freshman at Brown, helped convince him he was. “If it is what you love, then you should go back,” Adria recalls telling him. “You’re good at it, and you have changed.”
“I’d like to hijack the meeting to address some competitive issues,” Orr says. He is literally sitting on the edge of his seat in a conference room at Aruba’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. He may have mellowed, but he’s no pushover. Aruba, which sells wireless networking gear to corporations, competes with the likes of Cisco and Motorola in a brutally competitive field. (A sign on his office wall reads THE WEAK ARE KILLED, THE WOUNDED ARE EATEN.)
Yet there are visible signs he’s trying to temper the culture of “brutal honesty.” Early on, he brought in a consultant—not a spiritual coach—to help shape Aruba’s corporate culture through training and workshops. During the monthly management meeting I observed in July, the discussion was interrupted by a mariachi band, part of a monthly program to celebrate employees’ birthdays. Though it felt a bit like a scene out of The Office, it’s part of Orr’s bid to create a fun workplace. “Where’s the margarita machine?” one worker asks.
“I think he is free to be a good CEO without feeling a sense of desperation around the challenge,” says Geoffrey Moore, the Silicon Valley-based consultant and author. Moore has known Orr for more than a dozen years and considers him a top-tier leader. “Before, his identity was so deeply at stake. Now it is like, ‘I know how to do this.'” For Orr, the balancing act doesn’t necessarily mean working fewer hours (he typically gets about four hours of sleep a night), but working different hours. “If he’s in Boston for business, he’ll drive down to Providence to take Adria for dinner,” says Aaron Bean, Aruba’s head of human resources, who also worked for Orr at Alteon. “The old Dom would have immediately hopped on an airplane to Chicago for a sales call.”
Melding compassion and capitalism has been difficult as well. “This is definitely a work in progress,” he writes in an e-mail. Orr tries to heed the advice of Xilinx’s Roelandts, who reminded him that tough decisions benefit the overall enterprise. Cayton coaches him that “harsh actions do not equate to being wrong, and soft actions do not equate to being right.” Day to day, Orr simply tries to be an empathetic leader, taking workers’ and peers’ feelings into consideration before he acts. Still, his family’s feelings are now paramount. “I have been increasingly taking Alvin and Adria’s opinions … in my decisions on matters big or small,” he says. Dominic and Teresa speak periodically, mostly about the kids and their charity work. And Dominic’s relationship with Alvin is getting better—slowly.
One of my last meetings with Orr is over dinner at a Singaporean restaurant in the Bay Area. Cayton is there, and so is Alvin, now 25. We’ve been discussing the family dynamic circa 1992, and Orr is talking about all the transcontinental moves. He begins, “When we moved back to Palo Alto …” Alvin interrupts: “First of all, we didn’t move from Singapore to Palo Alto. Mom and I moved. You moved from Singapore to Japan.” Orr stares at his plate and nods. “That’s right,” he says quietly. Alvin turns to me and continues, “I understand why he loved work. It’s where he found his escape. But then he shouldn’t have gotten married and had kids.” A look of pain crosses Orr’s normally placid face.
But then, just as suddenly, there are moments that remind Orr why he did. Leaving the restaurant, Alvin casually slings his arm around his dad’s shoulder. Alvin plans to head out for a drink later that night with Callisch, now a marketing executive at Ruckus Wireless and Alvin’s current boss. He wants his dad to join them. “You should come,” Alvin says, with genuine feeling. Orr smiles and says he’ll think about it. In that moment of closeness with his son, he sees a glimmer of light.
This article was originally published in the November 12, 2007 issue of Fortune.