Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Why you can't mass produce CEOs.

An engineering friend once described humans as complete, self-contained, enclosed powerplants, available in a variety of sizes, and reproducible in quantity. Long-lived, they have major components in duplicate, and science is rapidly making strides toward solving the spare-parts problem. This engineer's picture of a human being is, I think, significant for what he has omitted. He does not explain what sets humans apart from other engineered marvels such as satellites, factories run by electronic brains, and engines powered by atoms. He fails to tell us what makes humans human. Engineers, no matter how inventive, have not yet succeeded in reducing the beauty in a summer sunset to arithmetic. Or a mother's love to a formula. Or a father's devotion to a system. Or a child's smile to a blueprint. They are unlikely to succeed in replicating other emotions such as enthusiasm, ambition, understanding, affection, dedication, success, anger, or hate. Similarly, despite the determined efforts of business management graduate schools, mass producing chief executives is an engineering idea that simply does not work. It's as ineffective as Dr. Frankenstein's failed efforts to create a human being. Contrary to popular belief, the best chief executives are neither the smartest nor the best-educated people in their companies. The best chief executives are those who recognize executive talent, hire it, and then give it the support it needs to do its assigned job. They are coordinators, not dictators. Facilitators, not manipulators. Visionaries, not divisionaries. Executives who know this will always find opportunities because they are in demand, just as success is always in demand in business circles. Retired football coach Don Shula reminds us, "Luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck." Not having a good chief executive officer is bad luck for a business, too. So what makes a good CEO? That depends on many variables -- too many to fit into a scientific formula. A CEO's job is rarely the same from one company to another. Even if the products are similar, the people are different. Even if the businesses are similar, their cultures are different. Even if the facilities are similar, locations are different. Even if the manufacturing systems are similar, suppliers are different. Even if the working parts are similar, they are not interchangeable. That's why being an effective chief executive requires being skilled in the art of management, not the science of management. Human decision makers must apply their best judgments to a complex set of variables that are rarely similar. Each chief executive assignment brings with it a unique jigsaw puzzle of pieces one attempts to fit together. The most successful CEOs are guided by an innate management creativity learned from on-the-job experience. The resulting mosaics they create can be masterpieces or mishmash.

As promised, more from my collection of "Things You Can Learn From My Mistakes As A CEO":
  • Even though most CEOs have offices at the top of the mountain, don't expect a Sermon on the Mount whenever they stand up to preach.
  • In business, one of the quickest paths to profit is a competitor's mistake.
  • In competition, expressions of personality and creativity often will defeat intellect.
  • Outside every big, fat, diversified, and satisfied company are business opportunities waiting to be captured by lean, shrewd, hungry, fast-moving competitors using guerrilla tactics.

Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc.

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