A Fifth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Fad

We don’t usually think of corporate boardrooms as places where fads start or take hold. But that’s probably the the best way to account for the adoption of the CEO title by American corporations in the postwar period. Or at least that’s the view urged in this 1999 paper by Allison and Potts, which a reader shared in a comment on my post about the postwar provenance of the term CEO: from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title spread, primarily through “board interlocks” — or through individuals serving on multiple corporate boards.

Allison and Potts present the title’s diffusion through corporate networks as a “no brainer,” “an innovation largely without consequence to adopters.” It was a case, they say, of “contact-only diffusion” or “diffusion with contagion,” in which no serious choices or business decisions had to be made; the title may have helped clarify the difference between President and Chairman, but for the companies Allison and Potts study there was no “non-trivial economic benefit or cost” involved. Companies adopted the title Chief Executive Officer largely because they were emulating other companies: “diffusion of the CEO title was strictly mimetic, a true fad.”

cumulativeCEO
Everybody was doing it. Container Corporation of America started the trend in the late 1940s: why, Allison and Potts don’t explain, but I hope to make some sense of that at some point in the future; it’s intriguing, to say the least, that the company led by Walter Paepcke — Aspen booster, patron of the arts, and promoter of big ideas — led the way. In 1955, CCA was the only one of the largest 200 industrial companies in the United States that had a Chief Executive Officer. By 1975, all but one of the bunch had adopted the title.

CEO Titles

The fad takes hold in four stages: an early period, from 1955-1961;1962-1965, when adoption rates climb dramatically; a late middle period, from 66-71; and a final period where we see adoption rates drop off, mainly due to the remaining number of small adopters.

Though Allison and Potts don’t distinguish the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title from the use of the acronym CEO, it’s in that late middle period, which they call the “inflection point” of the fad, where we start to see the first traces of the acronym “CEO” in the Harvard Business Review and other business publications. Shareholder value theory makes its debut in 1970. By the time the fad has run its course, in 1976, Jensen and Meckling have published their theory of the firm: the CEO has been identified as the primary “agent” of the firm’s success. He has also begun to enjoy unprecedented political influence, social prestige and cultural celebrity. What began as a boardroom fad has produced a new icon of American power.

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