Tag Archives: post-industrial

A Third Note on The First CEO

In a comment on one of my posts about the rise of the acronym “CEO,” a reader named Hugo reports some early Australian illustrations. I thought I’d lift Hugo’s notes from the comments and share them here, because the examples he’s found all pre-date the 1970 illustration of the acronym from the Harvard Business Review, which up until now I had taken to be the earliest. One dates back to 1914.

Time, again, to notify the dictionaries.

I found some earlier 1968 and 1950 examples in Australian newspapers, where chief executive officers were found at hospitals. I also found a 1917 [sic, but the source is from 1914] from a story about a town hall.

The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, page 22:
[Begin]
Applications are invited for the above positions at the Hillston District Hospital.

Applications and enquiries to the undersigned or Matron Fairchild, Box 1, PO, Hillson, NSW, 2675.
R. I. Cross,
C.E.O.
[End]

The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1950, page 30:
[Begin]
PARRAMATTA DISTRICT HOSPITAL.
Wanted. Experienced Sister to take
charge of the Out Patient Department
at this hospital.

N. B. FILBY,
Secretary and C.E.O.
[End]

Independent, 7 November 1914, page 3:
[Begin]
BEHIND THE SCENES
BY A TOWN HALL FLY

Of course I am the chief executive officer but I only execute by instructions.

“What a pity,” said the M.M., the C.E.O.

“Not at all, my dear young lady.” the C.E.O.’s voice was tear laden too.
[End]

Also uses G.H.U. a few times for Great High Understrapper.

I don’t think these earlier Australian instances should invalidate what I’ve said previously about the widespread use of the acronym CEO in the 1970s and 1980s. Those observations concern the use of “CEO” as an important marker of corporate power, social status and cultural celebrity in America, from roughly 1970-2010.

Still, it’s interesting to consider these early examples. The first two are abbreviations used in newspaper advertisements (maybe just to save money) for positions at hospitals, where the CEOs are clearly in charge of correspondence if not of hiring. Nothing too glamorous. [Update: And one reader, in a comment on this post, suggests that CEO in this context may mean “Catholic Education Officer,” adding that at this time in Australia, “nurses and religious orders go together.”]

The illustration from 1914 offers a satirical, behind-the-scenes account of a municipal office thrown into bureaucratic confusion by a report of 24 cows eating all the flowers and shrubs in the park. Underlings and citizens address the Chief Executive Officer by such honorifics as “Your Chief Executiveness” and “Most Magnificent” and, then, “CEO.” It is an empty title; he seems unable to execute anything at all: “Of course I am the chief executive officer,” he insists, “but I only execute by instructions.” When he finally understands the gravity of the situation, he acts: “I will tell somebody to tell somebody else to tell the inspector as soon as he comes in the morning at nine. I’m sure 24 cows won’t eat all the shrubs in that time.” He is very much the Chief, very much an Officer, but not much when it comes to Execution.

A Second Note on The First CEO: the CEO As Agent of Historical Change

Susy Jackson, an editor at Harvard Business Review, emailed me last week to tell me that she and her colleagues had discovered an illustration of the acronym “CEO” that predates the early instances discussed in my previous post on this subject.  Time to update that post and, while we’re at it, the entry on CEO in the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’ve emailed them to let them know).

A search through the HBR archives (one of Jackson’s colleagues described it as “not really very scientific, but fun”) turned up an article in the May June-1970 issue of HBR by Joseph O Eastlack, Jr. and and Phillip R. McDonald entitled “The Role of the CEO in Corporate Growth.” As we might expect, the article takes care to spell out and abbreviate the term in its first use: “chief executive officer (CEO)”; the speculation is that this was “standard treatment for a term that was thought to be known to HBR readers, but not so familiar that they could dispense with spelling it out altogether.” In 1970, after all, the CEO had just arrived on the scene.

A few thoughts about that entrance.

In my previous post I speculated that the term CEO may have come into wider use at HBR under the editorial direction of Ralph Lewis, who was appointed editor in chief in 1971, and oversaw several changes in editorial direction. This 1970 illustration of CEO predates that appointment; Edward Bursk was the editor in chief of HBR in 1970. Still, there’s no doubt HBR under Lewis’ direction helped define and disseminate the term.

Whether this more frequent recourse to the acronym in the pages of HBR was the result of Lewis’ policy or just a sign of the currency the acronym was gaining in management and governance discourse is hard to say. But it’s pretty clear that the wide acceptance of the acronym in the 1970s marks a shift – not just in editorial convention, but also in ideas about governance, leadership and power, within and without the corporation. By the mid to late 1970s, CEO is well on its way to becoming not just a convenient tag but an important construct of corporate power, social status and (by the 1980s) cultural celebrity.

The temptation to start painting on a broader canvas is almost irresistible. After all, big things are happening in the early 1970s, in business, in American society, around the world. When the figure of the CEO emerges in the 1970s, the heyday of the man in the gray flannel suit has reached its nadir. In America and throughout the industrialized West, the postwar boom – which witnessed the rise of the managerial class – has yielded to a grim post-industrial reality.

Indeed, the CEO will be one of the defining figures of the period that runs from roughly 1970 to 2010, the post-industrial period. In response to falling profit rates in manufacturing, we see during this period “a shift from productive enterprise to financial manipulation” (as Chomsky, summarizing economic historian Robert Bremmer, recently put it); I think it’s no coincidence that with the arrival of the CEO on the scene, the “financialization” of the economy has begun. (I understand the word is controversial; but let it stand for now: these are just broad strokes.)

The CEO emerges from this shift. He is its creature and creator – an agent entrusted with its execution – and the period of the CEO’s glory extends from the triumph of neo-liberalism during the Reagan-Thatcher era all the way to the financial crisis of 2008 and the institutional failures and social collapse it precipitates.