Tag Archives: lexicography

The First CEO: A 1966 Illustration

An early illustration of the acronym “CEO” turns up in an influential book on corporate governance from 1966.

Back in 2012, I set out to track down the earliest illustrations of the acronym “CEO” (for Chief Executive Officer) and make some historical sense of the evidence I found. For the most part, I have been confining my searches to the American context, and looking at how the term “CEO” gains cultural currency even as real-world CEOs gain unprecedented power and social prestige in American life.

My initial search led me back to 1970 and the pages of the Harvard Business Review. Now I’ve uncovered an even earlier illustration, or, rather, a whole slew of earlier illustrations, in the pages of The Corporate Director, a book by Joseph M. Juran and J. Keith Louden published in 1966.

Juran was a highly influential figure, an industrial engineer turned management guru, mentor to Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming. He is remembered today primarily for his writings on quality. The lesser known Louden started out as an industrial engineer (like Juran), moved into the management ranks after the Second World War, and began writing about corporate governance and business leadership starting in the 1960s, with the publication of The Corporate Director.

Their recourse to the three letter “CEO” appears to have been mainly a matter of expedience: “‘chief executive officer,’” they write, “recurs so often in this book that we have chosen to use the shorthand designation ‘CEO’ instead.” (p. 10)

For these authors, the abbreviation CEO is not merely a title, indicative of “rank”: it designates a “role,” or “the broad function or job assigned to an individual.”

This book is primarily concerned with roles, duties, functions, deeds. Hence, as far as possible, it uses words in their sense of describing roles. To the same end, it avoids, as far as possible, the use of words which are mainly descriptive of rank without describing role; for example, “President,” “Officer.” Moreover, it uses the “role-describing” words in their uncapitalized form to emphasize the role rather than the title; for example, chief executive officer, chairman of the board. The abbreviation CEO (for chief executive officer) is capitalized only to prevent a three-letter word from escaping notice. (p. 77)

At the time, those performing the role of chief executive officer (or CEO) mostly had the title of “President.” Juran and Louden cite a 1962 study of 900 industrial companies, which found that the “role of CEO” was assigned to the President 70 percent of the time; the Chairman of the Board 25 percent of the time; and the Chairman of the Board and President 5 percent of the time.

With the libraries closed due to the coronavirus, I’ve only been able to find this 1962 study — a research report from the National Industrial Conference Board and the American Society of Corporate Secretaries by John R. Kinley, entitled Corporate Directorship Practices — on Google Books. No preview is available. A search for “CEO” here turns up 4 instances, but the results do not display the actual text. So there may be a 1962 illustration waiting to be found. Page 86 looks especially promising. (It’s worth adding, however, that the three letter cluster creates a lot of false positives, so I can’t know for certain until I see the actual page.)

Even so, I am uncertain that these earlier illustrations change the big picture. It still seems pretty clear that the 1970s — with the doctrine of shareholder value and the overall financialization of the economy — mark the beginning of the CEO’s American heyday. It’s possible the recent crises and the end of the post-2008 expansion will spell its gradual and inglorious end.

Posner is Right About Why Friedman is Wrong, But…

It’s worth reading Eric Posner on why Milton Friedman was wrong. My issue is with the historical setup to the argument.

The shareholder theory is usually credited to Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate. In a famous 1970 New York Times article, Friedman argued that because the CEO is an “employee” of the shareholders, he or she must act in their interest, which is to give them the highest return possible. Friedman pointed out that if a CEO acts otherwise—let’s say, donates corporate funds to an environmental cause or to an anti-poverty program—the CEO must get those funds from customers (through higher prices), workers (through lower wages), or shareholders (through lower returns). But then the CEO is just imposing a “tax” on other people, and using the funds for a social cause that he or she has no particular expertise in. It would be better to let customers, workers, or investors use that money to make their own charitable contributions if they wish to.

Friedman’s theory was wildly popular because it seemed to absolve corporations of difficult moral choices and to protect them from public criticism as long as they made profits. At the same time, it took CEOs down a peg—yes, they were resented even in 1970—by denying that they were visionaries with public responsibilities. And Wall Street saw dollar signs in the single-minded devotion to corporate profits.

Of course, Friedman never mentions “the CEO” in his 1970 article. Friedman uses “managers,” “businessmen,” and “corporate executives” to discuss the agents who enter into “voluntary contractual arrangement” with the corporation’s principals or owners: e.g., “the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.” As I’ve observed in a number of posts, the acronym “CEO” would not come into wide use until about five years later, and then only in business journals. The general public would not start hearing about CEOs until the very late 1970s and early 1980s.

So while business executives might have been “resented even in 1970,” CEOs strictly speaking were not. If this is a quibble it’s a revealing one. It allows us to see the CEO historically, and as the creature of Friedman’s wildly popular doctrine.

Though they, too, may have been targets of public criticism and resentment, by the 1980s CEOs were also being made into celebrities and held up as models of American leadership. And as “the single-minded devotion to corporate profits” — and rapidly rising CEO pay — came to be celebrated as “visionary” in its own right by the fledgling business press, the words “visionary” and “vision” would come in for decades of abuse.