I met someone recently, whom I had known over 50 years ago. We did not stay in close touch—but I had never forgotten him, because when I was in my twenties he had taught me a useful lesson. I had thought it was silly at that time—because why should someone joining a company at the lowest rung, bother to know anything about the chief executive (CEO) of the company? How does it matter to him?
Yet, Anil (name changed) was the first person I had come across, who had turned down a good job offer because he found out that the CEO of the company had gone by air to Patna from Bombay to inaugurate a new depot for Bihar. And he had his Mercedes driven from and back to Mumbai by his driver, for his use for three days when he was there. Such extravagance—when he could have easily hired a luxury car locally in Patna. This demonstrated the CEOs misguided sense of values. Young Anil did not care for such vulgar display of wealth. He did not join this multinational, but accepted another assignment at a lower salary! This made me curious about CEOs.
Later, through the years, I saw CEOs display many quirks.
CEO 1 was known to call divisional heads to individual review meetings to the head office, from other factory or office locations—and then keep them waiting for three or four hours before calling each one in, in turn. Such a waste of time of highly paid managers, while at the same time demotivating them and lowering their self-esteem.
CEO 2 of a large listed company was known to privately own a chemicals unit (technically, owned by his wife), which supplied its total production to the listed company. It is widely known that sometimes the supplies failed to meet the quality standards, but the CEO insisted that the supply be accepted. Every quality chief in succession would leave the company in disgust and in helplessness.
CEO 3 was known to appoint all his relatives and friends as stockists of the company. Many of them did not know anything about the product and had no distribution experience. Since the product had a semi monopoly for many years, this really did not matter too much. But with a changed market environment and increased competition, the cracks began to show. The CEO’s system of appointing stockists was then totally exposed for all to see.
CEO 4 had no other interests besides the job. No golf, or bridge, or other games or hobbies. Not even an annual holiday, lest the organization crumble in his absence! One has to beware of such CEOs. They are generally inclined to be intolerant and narrow minded—single track, small vision men who are good material as corporate cogs. Perhaps they help to increase the share value for the shareholder, but are poor material as social or community catalysts, despite their powerful positions.
CEO 5 is at the other extreme—those who are interested in everything but their jobs. They have somehow arrived there by a combination of luck, good connections, old school ties,
boot-licking and bean spilling. They believe that the application of the same techniques will keep them in the saddle. In many of these cases, the damage done by sins of omission is gradual and unobserved, except by a trained eye. But after a few years, well after the CEO has retired and gone away, the company finds it has retrogressed so far, that it will require an exceptional CEO now to make amends.
CEO 6 likes to be surrounded by sycophants. He wants his bags to be carried by his vice-presidents at airports. He expects to be checked in by a standby. He arrives with a flourish just as the (second) last passenger has finished with security!
There are stories of extravagance, of corruption, of unethical behaviour, of favouritism, and other misdemeanours. And in every company, CEO stories will waft around like Tennysons “It looks as if a box of essences was broken in the air.”
The obvious question is: Why should it matter?
Because for better or for worse, the CEO casts a shadow across the whole organisation. His character, personality, beliefs, values and even opinions superimpose on the organisation and colour it.
Employees who may never meet the CEO, who may be many levels below him or her in the corporate hierarchy and perhaps working thousands of kilometres away from HQs, are still influenced by his personality.
CEO permanence can ruin companies with their strengths exaggerated and weaknesses hidden.
The bigger challenge is to identify companies like Enron in US and Good Value Investments in India, who present an attractive appearance on the outside, but are guilty of gross corporate misgovernance on the inside. Such companies are able to camouflage their 'real profile' for a long time before they are unmasked by someone with a conscience ‘blowing the whistle’.
And Anil taught me this lesson over 50 years ago – although regrettably, I did not always follow it!
(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.)