Tag Archives: role

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.

Serious Conversations, 6

It’s no surprise that the question periods at Davos turned out to be unproductive and dedicated mostly to preening, as Lucy Marcus reported in a blog post from the World Economic Forum last weekend. Where no practical decisions are going to be reached, and where real power is not up for grabs, we get jockeying for status.

The behavior is familiar to anyone who has spent much time at conferences, especially academic conferences, but it happens in meetings and at dinner parties, too. It’s a common social experience: conversations often function “as a kind of vocal lek,” as Robin Dunbar explains in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language; they are like “the display areas where males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to the females.”

Black_Grouse_2

Black grouse lekking.

In the natural world, this self-advertising serves a crucial function, helping birds and beasts pair off; in our world, lekking might make someone more attractive or raise his stature in the crowd, but ultimately it undermines serious conversation.

Someone might make the case that we should indulge it anyway. After all, self-advertising and chest-puffing are ultimately harmless, and might amount to nothing more than a collective throat clearing: a way of establishing the space of conversation and identifying or qualifying its participants. But even if we concede that it accomplishes that much, lekking will always be of limited value for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s an exercise in establishing social rank, and in a group it’s always very easy to confuse social rank (or title or position) with authority; and, second, that kind of authority — who we are, what we know, what our role is — is the wrong kind of authority for a conversation.

(The exception might be a case where the conversation was a matter of getting expert advice on a topic; but even there, we would not want an expert simply to wear her laurels or point to rankings, but to address our particular situation.)

The authority we need for serious conversation is, instead, a great equalizer: every person already has it, and we recognize it in each other the moment we enter into a conversational stance, or commit in earnest to the joint activity of conversation. It is the moral authority we have to address each other, as mutually accountable persons, and to make demands of each other: or to ask, as I’ve been putting it.

If lekking or some other social performance served the purpose of brandishing and bolstering that asking authority, then it would be of great value. Sharing stories and other empathy-building rituals might help in this regard, as long as they themselves don’t become exercises in self-advertisement or the promotion of a person as a brand.

This isn’t just about sincerity or authenticity of address, though that’s part of the issue here. Lekking relegates the mutual authority of persons to the background, distracts us from it, or diminishes human stature. It says that recognizing each other as equal partners in the project of the conversation won’t suffice; it narrows and excites our attention. It’s a social impairment.