Who wants to be a CEO? I don’t

By Rupert Morris, Spectra 2002

What is it about the departure of any high-profile corporate chief executive that seems to prompt the familiar outpouring of character assassination and vituperation? A certain sense of injustice, perhaps, that someone should leave a job substantially richer even if they have manifestly failed. But what do the critics really expect? That having negotiated a contract, the CEO concerned will forfeit their legal entitlement?

There is certainly a case for saying that we pay chief executives too much, just as it is certain that we expect too much of them. But the fury that accompanies the departure of one of these would-be miracle-workers is at least 90% envy. And are they really so enviable?

A recent study by Ogilvy & Mather confirmed my impression of the majority of CEOs as ordinary human beings, thrust into extraordinary circumstances. What makes their predicament all the more difficult is that they are hardly ever prepared for the demands made upon them.

“A CEO today,” said the head of a British consumer-goods company, “must be sensitive to issues, open and willing to learn from all angles. If anyone believes this is a natural process that they already know, then they do not know our reality.”

As the Ogilvy report confirms, most newly appointed CEOs have achieved their sudden eminence by skill in a particular field, be it finance, sales and marketing or whatever. They have got there by the fruits of their own labour, by dedication, concentration and single-mindedness. Once they become the boss, everything changes. Instead of channelling their energies, narrowing their focus, they must broaden their horizons to embrace all aspects of the company and its relations with its various stakeholders – including the media.

Suddenly the skills that got you to the top are no use any more. What a delightful irony.

It reminds me of my own recent attempts to run courses for MBA students on handling the media. The truth is, I failed. I tried as hard as I could to explain the sceptical, questioning viewpoint of the journalist, but my audience just didn’t want to know. When they heard a tape of John Humphrys interviewing someone, they simply took exception to his approach, which they saw as negative and destructive. They were reluctant to accept my suggestion that journalists, whatever their personal faults, represented public opinion – and that business leaders would do well to tune in from time to time. Why was I sowing doubt where they wanted certainty? I realise now that they didn’t want questions but answers. They wanted formulae for success – the kind of formulae that, in every other aspect of their studies, offer the promise of measurable results.

What good will this do them when they get to the top? If only I had had that Ogilvy & Mather study to explain to them why single-mindedness is not enough. If only I had been able to quote Vernon Ellis, International Chairman of Accenture, who said recently: “Leadership today is much more than just getting the big decisions right and giving orders. It consists, or should consist, largely of developing and communicating a corporate vision, establishing shared values, empowering people to work within those values and translate the vision into action, and inspiring them to act with the necessary self-discipline within clear accountabilities.”

There’s no simple formula there, and why should anyone expect one? No one – not even the critics – pretend that the CEO’s job is an easy one. It is certainly very different, and probably much more difficult, today. Modern business is so complex that the macho days of the corporate decision-maker are gone. Today’s successful CEO is as much an arch-delegator as anything else. Lord Browne of BP, Sir Chris Gent of Vodafone and Terry Leahy of Tesco, the three most admired business leaders of today, all fit this bill.

Let’s list a few of the qualities this type of person needs – and that Browne, Gent and Leahy clearly possess. To begin with, there is intellectual grasp, then sensitivity to the feelings of others, willingness to listen, a certain charisma allied to a ready sociability. Finally, and crucially, there is a thorough awareness of the media. These guys have that precious ability, it seems, to make their own headlines.

How gratifying for journalists like me. We like to see CEOs being obliged to justify their actions in public. These people run enormously powerful companies. Just like politicians, they have a public to satisfy – and increasingly, they realise this. It is encouraging to hear Lord Browne and his colleagues speak about sustainable business and corporate social responsibility. And it is gratifying for a journalist to discover that those softer skills – willingness to listen, openness to new ideas – are so highly prized at the very summit of global business.

It’s a victory, dare I say, for the HR people, a shift away from the downsizers, the reengineering experts and the TQM freaks towards those with the human touch. And that is something that business leaders and journalists should both be happy to celebrate.