John Daly: A visionary pulling the levers? Deciphering the cult of the CEO

The often lonely status of the CEO can demand a heavy personal price in meeting the expectations of directors, shareholders, customers, and employees, writes John Daly

John Daly: A visionary pulling the levers? Deciphering the cult of the CEO

CEO is a role which has always carried a mixture of respect and envy in the business world.

Firmly positioned at the head of the company C-suite, the chief executive officer is viewed as a dominant corporate force, a visionary pulling the levers of progress on route to the next commercial horizon.

But while it is the ultimate career ambition of many a corporate soldier, the position’s lonely status can often demand a heavy personal price in meeting the expectations of directors, shareholders, customers and employees.

In a recent survey, 87% of Irish employees indicated the need for CEOs to be inspiring — yet almost three quarters don’t think they are.

The survey entitled ‘The Cult of the CEO,’ conducted by Hanover Communications and Censuswide, asked 501 Irish employees working in companies of more than 50 staff about the importance of various character traits in an ideal head of company.

Clarity was listed as a key attribute, with 71% agreeing a CEO with a clear personality was more likely to run a successful business. Specifically, the ideal CEO needs to be inspiring,

motivating and future-thinking (87%).

However, only 40% and 30% were seen as motivating and inspiring respectively — marking a stark contrast between the ideal and the reality.

Almost three-quarters agreed that their CEO wants to have a positive

impact, but one in eight aren’t sure they practice what they preach.

As Apple CEO Tim Cook put it: “Do you have the courage to admit that you’re wrong and do you change? The most important thing to me as a CEO is that we keep the courage.”

Lorna Jennings, managing director of Hanover Communications, underlined the media impact on the perceptions of CEOs and what makes a good one. “The media shares the desire of its consumers to simplify complexity by identifying real people to serve as shorthand for what are, in reality, many-headed organisations.”

Where 20 years ago a CEO’s unfortunate slip of the tongue might have made a short clip on RTÉ, today it can be replayed on social media, looped on news feeds and dissected by endless talking heads and commentators ascribing ever more significance to what began as a boardroom comment.

“A more dangerous effect of the way we paint ordinary people as storybook characters is that they start believing it,” she added. “Having told our chief executives that they are the company, it’s not entirely unreasonable of them to allow such delusions of grandeur to go to their heads.”

Interestingly, the same week the CEO survey was published one of the highest-profile chief executives of modern times, Jack Welch, passed away. The man Fortune magazine in 1999 labelled ‘the manager of the century,’ was born to working-class Irish-American stock and joined General Electric in 1960 as a chemical engineer. At 37, he became the company’s youngest vice president, eventually holding the CEO position from 1981 to 2001.

During his tenure at the top, GE’s total market cap rocketed from $14bn to $410bn — making it the most valuable company in the world at the time. While Welch would go on to become one of the most quoted CEOs in history, one of his nuggets of commercial wisdom set the bar every leader of his generation aspired to: “Get the hell out of the office. Get out and touch the people. Listen, listen, listen. Give purpose to their jobs and their lives — that’s what this is all about. We spend most of our waking hours on these jobs — make them fun, make them exciting, and reward the hell out of the ones who do the job you ask them to do.”

Taking the helm of GE around the time Japanese imports were undercutting American manufactured goods, the determined son of a train conductor set about cutting away the dead weight from the company. “I came into a company that had over 100,000 too many people working for it, hard measures had to be taken.” Laying off vast numbers, Welch earned the nickname ‘Neutron Jack’ — after the bomb

designed to wipe out populations, yet leave buildings intact.

Welch eventually retired from GE in 2001 with a historic severance package of over $400m and immediately began a second career as a business guru. His first book, Jack: Straight From the Gut earned him a $7m advance and went on to sell 10m copies. His second book in 2005, Winning was another bestseller.

Yet, while Welch coined many business maxims such as “Fix it, close it or sell it”, he credited many of his business principles to educator and management consultant Peter Drucker, whose

writings many ascribed to the foundation of the modern business corporation.

“An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used,” Drucker wrote in the 2004 Harvard Review. “Some of the best business and non-profit CEOs I’ve worked with over a

65-year consulting career were all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses.”

For acolytes like Jack Welch, Drucker’s essential management philosophy came down to two basic questions: “If the company wasn’t already in a particular business, would you enter it today?” and “If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?” It was an ideology that served Jack Welch well in his two decades as CEO of GE.

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