Where have all the celebrity CEOs gone?

January 28, 2012

Where have all the celebrity CEOs gone?

Yesterday I was asked to talk about what I do at Weber Shandwick to our Crisis and Issues group in New York. It was an end of the week get together to take the edge off of all the long hours. I talked about reputational issues and answered several questions. It was a nice opportunity for me to reflect too.
I was asked where all the celebrity CEOs had gone which made me recall my first book on CEO reputation. The book was released at the height of the dot com boom when 22 year old CEOs were the norm and celebrity CEOs were plentiful.  In my book, I tried to make the point that it was not CEO celebrity that mattered but CEO credibility. As I was answering this question, I realized that I hit on some of the right notes as to why CEO celebrity was not the same today but missed a few. In fact, I mentioned that being CEO today was not  an easy job whatsoever. CEOs are much more embattled.  Here are some of the reasons I talked about yesterday but others as well taken from an Economist article I was saving to post about.

  • CEO tenure is shorter than it used to be (on average 6.6 years, according to Booz’s research).  They usually come into office with great fanfare. They get approximately two years of grace when they start out (more like 18 months), 2 years to provide evidence that their strategy is working and two years to get pushed out. After six years like this, it’s best to be a CEO nobody.
  • CEOs don’t have all the power anymore. Most CEOs now have separate chairmans that are looking over their shoulders and asking a lot of questions.  Booz found that in 2002 48% of incoming CEOs were also chairmen.  In 2009, that number dropped to 12%.  Hard to be a celebrity when there is power sharing going on.
  • CEO compensation is always a headline and increasingly links the CEO title to perceptions of greed. CEO compensation is actually declining.
  • Shareholders and stakeholders are not sitting idle. They are much more aggressive.  Some hedge funds are actively browbeating CEO and corporate decisions and in executives’ faces. The ridicule can get strenuous.
  • Boards are more active too. They don’t want their reputations shamed either by poor CEO decisions or poor behavior. And according to Korn Ferry, new board members are more likely to be deep in international experience and have worked abroad. They are not necessarily golfing buddies like board members of yore. Angry birds maybe, but not necessarily tee time!

With all these barriers in place to curb the power of CEOs, celebrity CEOs can hardly flourish. Instead, we are looking at a new world of convening CEOs who communicate internally to employees, communicate online or through video to netizens, travel to speak to customers and influencers at forums they convene themselves (IBM‘s Smarter Planet  method), partner with third parties and government to problem solve on today’s economic woes and so forth.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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