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The cult of the faceless boss-from the Economist

Posted by Editor on November 23, 2009

Nov 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Too many chief executives are instantly forgettable. It’s the flamboyant, visionary bosses who change the world

THE European Union is not the only institution that prefers faceless technocrats to people with star power. The corporate world is increasingly rejecting imperial chief executives in favour of anonymous managers—bland and boring men and women who can hardly get themselves noticed at cocktail parties, let alone stop the traffic in Moscow and Beijing.

Some of the world’s most powerful bosses are striking mainly for their blandness: Sam Palmisano at IBM, Tony Hayward at BP, Terry Leahy at Tesco, Vittorio Colao at Vodafone. These men are at the head of a vast army of even more forgettable bosses. Watch the parade of chief executives who appear on CNBC every day, or drop in to a high-powered conference, and you begin to wonder whether cloning is more advanced than scientists are letting on.

It is true that there are a few more women and members of ethnic minorities at the top of companies than there used to be. But physical diversity has not translated into cultural diversity or intellectual vitality. Almost without exception, today’s bosses spout the same tired old management clichés—about the merits of doing well by doing right, the importance of valuing your workers, the virtues of sustainability and so forth.

The women who were profiled in a recent article in the Financial Times about the “top 50 women in world business” were every bit as adept with the cliché as their male colleagues. Indra Nooyi, the boss of PepsiCo, proclaimed that she spends her weekends “doing everything that normal people do”. Andrea Jung, the boss of Avon, said her biggest inspiration came from “Avon’s six million sales representatives worldwide”.

The fashion for faceless chief executives is part of an understandable reaction against yesterday’s imperial bosses, many of whom were vivid characters, capable of holding their own in a cocktail party with Tony Blair, but who collectively brought opprobrium on the system that let them shine. Some, such as Jeff Skilling of Enron and Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, broke the law and helped inspire a dramatic tightening of government regulation, in the form of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. Others, such as Home Depot’s Bob Nardelli and Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina, paid themselves like superstars but delivered dismal results.

The turbulent business climate is another factor that encourages today’s chief executives to keep their heads down. Their average tenure has declined from ten years in the 1970s to six years today, and boards are becoming ever more likely to sack bosses if they get out of line, particularly in Europe. The financial crisis has also produced a wave of popular fury about over-paid executives and their unaccountable ways. In this sort of climate it is not just the paranoid, but the faceless, who survive….Read entire article here: http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14844995

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