When Did the CEO’s Job Become So Lousy?


Being a CEO of a public company used the be the ultimate role for anyone in business. So when did it become so undesirable – and just a stepping stone to a better things down the road?

Jobs and roles in companies go through cycles. ABC’s Pan Am shows us that being an airline stewardess was the hot job to land for working women in the 1960’s (boy, does that concept seem dated) and NBC’s The Office vilifies most roles, unless you’re the boss, in organizations today for the unpleasantness you have to tolerate to survive.

So what happened to the glamor of being a public company CEO?

The old stereotype – play golf regularly, travel in elegance, pick a board of directors that adores you, and be in cush heaven for a decade – can still be found but you’ve got to look a lot harder for it than you used to.

Today’s public company CEOs –  clients like mine –   feel more like being a contestant on Jeopardy; you’re supposed to have the right answer to an endless series of challenges, the whole world knows when you screw up, and have a conveniently short memory when you do well. Investors, employees, collaborators who are friends one day, enemies the next day (hence frenemy), and private equity firms who are ready to buy you up (and probably dump much of management) all seem to be out to put you on the spot, or even worse, fire you.

HP dumped new CEO Leo Apotheker after 11 months, Sara Lee Corporation’s FJ Fraleigh was rewarded for his patience (and assurances) of getting the CEO role by getting whacked, and even a scion of business like Rupert Murdoch got a chance to be grilled before Parliament, along with his son James, for how they managed their family-run but publicly traded business. Other CEOs who have recently, and unexpectedly been fired or quit include Yahoo’s Carol Bartz, Bank of New York Mellon’s Robert Kelly, Christina Norman from the Oprah Winfrey Network, and Hyundai’s Yang Seung-suk.

Many more CEOs are on the proverbial hot seat, and there’s more heat – see this Fortune article Should More CEO’s Be Fired? – coming by the minute. And while the walk-away money isn’t chump change – Apotheker’s received estimated $7.2M, and Fraleigh‘s signed a termination deal for $11.3M in pay  – it’s not like you’re likely to be hired as a CEO again any time soon. While the overwhelming majority of people won’t shed any tears with that sort of package, the heart of the matter is that there’s a lot more to the factors that cause someone to want to be a public CEO company than pay.

Bloomberg Businessweek writer Peter Burrows notes, “In tech circles, the C-suite at a publicly traded company is no longer the be-all and end-all.” While the pay can be great, the firings – sackings in the Queen’s english – are many. And the walkaway pay mostly doesn’t begin to sooth the wounds of pride and self-esteem, even with a dry exit – see Great Firings in History –  over a wet exit.

The CEO role has now become a stepping stone to other, better opportunities; board seats, private equity or venture capital partnerships, or startups. All of these options can pay well, and carry less of the “being the target in a shooting gallery” feel. As Digital Chocolate CEO Trip Hawkins said in the same Peter Burrows article, “The people who could possibly do these [public company CEO] jobs realize it would be easier to create a new company rather than try to get an old stodgy one to adopt new ideas.

As B. B. King might suggest about a public company CEO role, “The The thrill is gone, It’s gone away from me. . ”

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.



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