Brandt On Leadership -- Invasion Of The Profit Snatchers

April 14, 2005
Looking out for No. 1 was never so lucrative.

It turns out that you and I aren't quite the Masters-of-the-Universe type CEOs we thought we were. We know this not only because we have teenage sons and daughters (Isn't it a pleasure to hear "Dad, please" in response to your every word or action?), but also because of the excellent examples set by CEOs in the news. We've learned, for example, that being a CEO doesn't mean starting a firm or turning around a company. It has little to do with being responsible for strategy, the finances or execution. And it has absolutely nothing to do with taking the blame if things don't work out or spreading the credit (and the rewards) if they do.

What being a CEO does mean is taking care of No. 1. Greed is good (again). And running a company is less important than running a scam that benefits you and yours.

Don't believe me? Imagine you were a management consultant who just landed from Mars, charged with studying the habits and behaviors earthbound CEOs. You could write your analysis without leaving your hotel room -- just browse the business section of the newspaper left each morning outside your door. What would you report?

  • That even CEOs judged by their boards as failures are worth millions more than other human beings, and can't be expected to lose their jobs without a multi-million-dollar present to ease their bruised egos. Of course, nobody from Mars would believe you -- You mean we should pay extra money for poor performance? -- so you would have to send them magazine articles about Hewlett-Packard and its $41 million goodbye kiss to ex-CEO Carly Fiorina.
  • That even CEOs who've built major corporations through savvy acquisitions have trouble working calculators and can't be expected to understand all that gosh-darned, newfangled accounting stuff. Your Martian colleagues might be skeptical -- C'mon, nobody builds a multi-billion dollar firm without understanding finance -- so you'll have to send them court transcripts from the trials of ex-WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers and ex-HealthSouth Corp. CEO Richard Scrushy, both of whom were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the books were being cooked under their very noses.
  • That CEOs have more sex than other human beings, even if they look like wizened trolls. Your Martian friends will titter until you show them newspaper reports about Boeing's last CEO, who resigned for . . . well, just let them read the clippings and keep on tittering.

Of course, in all those instances (and many more), what you will also report is that earthly CEOs are also a lot more likely to be fired from their jobs than other human beings (though with $41 million severance packages out there, your Martian friends will be wondering what they have to do to get fired). And then, just as you finish your PowerPoint summary, some red-planet smart aleck is sure to point out that a number of earth's CEOs have recently ended up in jail. At which point you'll deliver your most amazing discovery about third-rock CEOs: It doesn't matter. It turns out that going to jail, if you're a clever CEO, only means that your stock price will go up, you'll be offered a new television show and your employees will cry at your joyous homecoming. Impossible, your Martian bosses will say, until you tune their high-tech Martian plasma monitors into Martha Stewart's newest venture and watch her turn prison orange into corporate green.

It's like they're from a different planet, your Martian friends will marvel.

And you'll say: Exactly.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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