Tag Archives: Ralph Lewis

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.