In the 1960s and earlier, the arrival in the corner office, was the final achievement. And one stayed there till retirement—whether within five years or 20 years of arrival.
In Glaxo, in my time, the managing director was appointed by the head office in the UK and he came to India as the master of all he surveyed. He had a very large, impressive office, a separate entrance and elevator from the car park, so you never saw him enter or exit—and never saw him, unless he called you. It was The Harriot era—and he went on to occupy the corner office till he was recalled to the UK—and then to another assignment!
Later, I met a chief executive officer (CEO) 2, who had joined the company as a typist, then became a steno, and by dint of hard work, combined with a brilliant mind and a photographic memory, rose to become the CEO of the same company in just 15 years (in the 60s) leaving all the other contestants far behind, who were much better qualified in academics!
Unfortunately, the others could not keep up his pace as they went along, and he finally left the company to become the CEO of another multinational—going from one corner office to another!
Still later, I met yet another CEO 3 of a multinational, who got into the corner office more by circumstance than by design. The expat managing director had gone to Singapore and he died suddenly on the way back. The company did not have a succession plan ready. Caught unawares, they decided to promote the chief accountant—a trusted employee of 20 years in the company. They did not realise that his skills did not go too far beyond numerals. He just could not dictate a letter.
If it was an important matter which concerned the Europe HQ or the government department, then he would call upon a group of senior managers to sit with him for half a day, and draft the letter, with corrections and corrections of corrections (wasting everyone’s time); and all this time the secretary would be sitting comfortably at her table, doing crochet and waiting for this letter to finally emerge as a final draft to be typed, signed, and dispatched. The company paid a heavy price for such a disability but it did not know this at that time.
This was far different from CEO 2, who not only dictated cogently and fast, but also looked over at the script written by the secretary, with an occasional comment—“No, Margaret, that is the wrong stroke you have used. What I said was …..” He had not forgotten his shorthand, even after 15 years, much to the dismay of his secretary!
Still later, I met a CEO 4, who spent 18 hours of the day being the CEO. He had achieved his life’s ambition and he was not going to risk it until his dying day. He had no hobbies. He worked till 8pm every day, and spent much of Saturday at the office. He expected his senior managers to do likewise. If some left on time on weekdays and/or did not come in at least for a few hours on Saturdays, this was a big minus mark for the annual appraisal.
And, of course, CEO 4 could not stand any competition. If anyone among the senior managers showed promise of being a CEO in future, he had better watch out. CEO 4 would ensure that he is hounded out before he even begins to be an obvious threat.
When the CEO was transferred to the HQs in Europe (which he very much wanted, to earn money beyond Indian rupees) but at a lower level in the hierarchy, he ensured that one of his 'yes men' lackeys was promoted to CEO – and he spent the next five years running the India operation from Europe, in addition to doing whatever job he was assigned. In effect, he remained CEO in India till he retired.
However, times have changed. The corner office is no longer a secure place till you retire. Non-performance even for a few years and pressure will build up from stakeholders that the CEO should quit (gracefully) – or be terminated if he does not (disgracefully).
There is the example of the founder-chairman of Housing.com in India who was asked by the board to resign. There was the other founder, Steve Jobs, who was forced to resign from the company he founded (though he returned to save the company later).
In 2018 / 19, there were about 158 chairmen who quit, or were asked to quit, out of the Fortune 500 companies. In 2020/21, the situation may not be much better, especially after the COVID-19 shock.
Unlike in the past – the Corner Office is no longer a permanent office for the CEO. The elevator from here sometimes goes down much faster than it comes up!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are "5 Gs of family Business" with Dr Mita Dixit and "Marketing in a Digital/ Data World" with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)