Tag Archives: cult of the CEO

CEOs Are Not The Policy Leaders We Need Right Now

No distancing at Trump’s declaration of national emergency. CEOs are too close for public comfort.

Mike Lindell, better known as the My Pillow Guy, probably cut the most absurd and alarming figure among the CEOs standing with Donald Trump at his March 31st coronavirus press conference. A TV huckster and a religious zealot, Lindell declared from the White House podium that Trump had been elected by God’s grace, and he promised that his “uniquely positioned” and “empowered” pillow company would soon be producing about 50,000 cotton face masks per day. Though Lindell may have come off as a kook, it is hard not to appreciate the alacrity of his business pivot, and there’s no doubt we’ll need more face masks on the market, especially now that the CDC is coming around to the sensible view that masks should be essential wear.

Lindell’s outlandish behavior also draws attention to a disturbing pattern: the administration is trying to outsource the federal pandemic response to the private sector. This was the clear message when Trump declared a national emergency on March 13th, standing shoulder to shoulder with CEOs, not with medical or scientific experts or economists or seasoned administrators who know how to marshal government resources in emergencies. On Slate, Seth Maxon put it bluntly: “Trump Seems to Think a Bunch of CEOs Will Save America From the Coronavirus”; but maybe even that wasn’t blunt enough: Trump and the Trump administration have repeatedly made it clear that the federal government will not and should not lead the public health response; they are so callously laissez faire that they are abdicating the responsibilities of government, or handing the reins of government over to the private sector, while the states scramble for the resources they need.

The pattern has been in place for decades, of course. Now, we are reaping the whirlwind that anti-government ideologues and kleptocratic predators have sown since the 1970s. In some areas, the current administration has simply vacated government offices and diminished the administrative capacity of agencies; in others, they have allowed the private sector to direct and usurp the ordinary functions of federal government; and on nearly every public policy front, they defer to and entrust the public welfare — our common wealth, our public health, and our collective future — to CEOs.

This has been the case from the earliest days of this administration: in February of 2017, for example, Trump signed an executive order that allowed for broad regulatory rollbacks and, in a symbolic and premonitory gesture, handed the presidential pen to Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris. Just one month later, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt handed Liveris another gift, when he announced the EPA would not ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos despite clear scientific evidence of its toxicity. Murray Energy’s Robert Murray had even greater influence, presenting the administration with a wish list — “an action plan” — that included pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord and revoking the Clean Power Plan.

After Trump announced his intention to withdraw from Paris, Apple’s Tim Cook, known to the president as Tim Apple, said he could not step down in protest from Jared Kushner’s Office of American Innovation because he’d never joined it in the first place; but in February of 2019, he joined Ivanka Trump’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, along with Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed, Ginni Rometty of IBM, Walmart’s Doug McMillon, and Home Depot’s Craig Menear, among others. The board was formed to make sure “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy,” according to the president’s daughter; it’s unclear what they are doing — or if they are doing any policy work at all — now that the boom has gone bust.

It’s doubtful this board was ever meant to do any serious policy work, or that it could even if it tried. That’s not a knock on the participating CEOs. They may have joined with the best of intentions. There are CEOs today who sincerely want to do more to address social inequities and environmental degradation and are committed to the idea of stakeholder as opposed to shareholder capitalism. These are still aspirations, however, not business requirements, and they will remain aspirations without a major rethink and reorganization of the business enterprise. Meanwhile, CEOs have other, competing priorities, as well as a fiduciary duty to uphold. To the extent they must focus on short-term financial results, CEOs simply do not and cannot act primarily in the broad, long-term public interest — even if sometimes business and the public interest happen to coincide, as they might, at the moment, for Mike Lindell.

The C-Suite is not a public office and the CEO is not the model of public leadership we need.

The notion that success in the private sector makes someone suited for public office has been a source of endless mischief since at least the 1980s. People wrongly consider the president America’s CEO and the presidency a job; CEOs think they can be president; CEOs are celebrated as public benefactors and forward-thinking leaders, but it’s often hard to tell whether they are genuinely public spirited or just command an effective public relations campaign. All that makes a travesty of public service and public office and runs contrary to the public interest.

We should understand how we got to this failed state. That’s largely a story of the CEO’s rise to prominence with the financialization of the economy and of political reaction against broad public welfare schemes. The trend is toward privatizing the republic and hoarding the American future. We are confronted with “a philosophical position,” as historian Heather C. Richardson writes, “embraced by those who would overturn the active government that has presided over the United States since the New Deal.” In response to this attempted overthrow, we have to build a robust alternative, or at least do the work necessary to give future generations a head start on it.

Strategy’s Eclipse and the Big Chief

One of the more provocative business articles I’ve read lately appeared just last week, on forbes.com. It’s a piece by Steve Denning about the collapse of the consulting firm Monitor. The article has already generated thousands of comments and what its own author, in a follow-up post, calls a lot of “social media brouhaha”.

Most of the discussion so far focuses on Denning’s analysis of Monitor’s collapse. He traces the firm’s demise to Michael Porter’s flawed idea that “sustainable competitive advantage” could be gained in markets “by studying the numbers and the existing structure of the industry.” Monitor, in Denning’s view, was selling an “illusory product” that merely “supports and advances the pretensions of the C-suite.” Where Monitor’s approach to strategy failed was where it matters now more than ever: helping businesses connect with or “delight” customers, or innovate, or do things that customers (or, for that matter, society as a whole) want them to do.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, of course, and Denning has been responding to criticism and comment on the Forbes site and on Twitter. I am more intrigued by what Monitor’s downfall might signify – whether it indicates that there are larger changes afoot.

Denning himself wonders if the firm’s collapse marks the end of an “era”. Several of his readers and Tweeters (including me) have suggested that pure strategy plays are simply no longer viable. But that observation only scratches the surface, I think. The downfall of Monitor may indicate something else as well – a larger change in the configuration of CEO or executive power within the enterprise, and the end of a certain idea or iconography of the CEO.

Denning approaches this very thought as he lays out his historical argument, which is basically the story of how Michael Porter got lucky and launched Monitor at precisely the right moment. When Monitor first appeared on the scene in 1979, writes Denning, a new era was dawning:

Pursuit of shareholder value (“the dumbest idea in the world”) was just getting going with a vengeance. The C-suite was starting to realize that they could cash in, big time. Along comes Michael Porter with a rain dance that justifies their cashing in. Porter arrived at just the right time. Hopefully that era is now coming to an end. People are starting to see the rain dance for what it is.

I would hasten to add that the dumbest idea in the world, the doctrine of shareholder value, helped usher in another very bad idea that is still very much with us — the idea of the “CEO” that started to take hold at roughly around the time that acronym first appeared on the scene, in the early 1970s. The CEO is largely an invention of that period.

I’ve taken up this theme in a few posts (here and here and here). A number of journalists and academics have addressed this same point, directly and indirectly. For Rakesh Khurana, the cultish construct of the CEO emerges out of the transition from managerial to investor capitalism. In response to the growing power of institutional investors (like pension funds, bank trusts, insurance firms, endowment funds, and money managers), boards had, by the 1980s, come to focus almost exclusively on the search for an outside celebrity CEO “savior” who would not only appease and appeal to newly-empowered institutional investors but also make a big splash in the newly-emergent American business press.

Needless to say, this further consolidated decision-making power at the top of the corporate hierarchy. At the same time, the newly powerful CEO had become a cultural icon of celebrity and success. We made a totem of corporate executive power.

If the mantra of investor capitalism was “shareholder value,” the central mystery of the new faith was the “agency” problem (as described in a now-canonical 1976 paper by Jensen and Meckling [pdf]). The interests of shareholders and managers were now to be “aligned.” Results have been mixed: a myopia set in, putting the “focus more on the short-term management of the share price,” writes Christopher Bennett on a Conference Board blog post, “and less on the long-term management of the business.”

In a Washington Post Op Ed, Michael Useem (who’s written the book on investor capitalism) takes it one step further. He connects the “unrelenting pressure of the equity market on company leaders to meet quarterly TSR expectations” with the offshoring of operations, “regardless of the impact on the domestic workforce.” Worse, it’s invited leaders to behave like sociopaths, or at least irresponsibly: “an incessant equity-market demand on company leaders to focus on their own advantage whatever the disadvantage for others” has made “fewer executives and directors…able to step forward to advocate what is required for a vibrant economy, not just what is required for their own prosperity.”

Shareholder value may have not have been the dumbest idea ever, as Denning would have it, but it was, at best, a Faustian bargain for American society. It was an important article of faith — and not just for the believers, but for society as a whole, during the period in which the celebrity CEO took on his (yes, usually his) unique features and cast, all the trappings of his office.

Strategy, especially Monitor’s brand of strategy, played a crucial role here. Denning refers us to a passage in Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth:

Porter’s theory thus played to the image of the CEO as a kind of superior being. As Stewart notes, “For all the strategy pioneers, strategy achieves its most perfect embodiment in the person at the top of management: the CEO. Embedded in strategic planning are the assumptions, first, that strategy is a decision-making sport involving the selection of markets and products; second, that the decisions are responsible for all of the value creation of a firm (or at least the “excess profits,” in Porter’s model); and, third, that the decider is the CEO. Strategy, says Porter, speaking for all the strategists, is thus ‘the ultimate act of choice.’ ‘The chief strategist of an organization has to be the leader— the CEO.”

With the passing of Monitor, this concept of strategy may start to go by the board. And so, with any luck, will the idea of the CEO as the “superdecider” (Denning’s word) or super-anything. The rain dance is over, and we can now see the Big Chief as he really is.