The rise of the celebrity CEO

There was an article in The Australian recently titled “Welcome to the age of rock-star chief executives” with the opening line “There was a time not too long ago, when the CEOs of major Australian companies were rarely heard and, even more rarely seen. Their one job was to make money for shareholders. Not anymore. Just like the advent of celebrity chefs and the Kardashians, Australian CEOs have morphed into rock star-like celebrities with multimillion-dollar salaries, huge showy houses, and media profile to match”.  Here are some of my thoughts on rock-star CEOs and some of the points raised in the article, the things they do and what drives them and what good leaders can do to avoid being one; 

The CEO’s we love to hate seem to be the ones that put shareholders above everyone else. Great leaders seem to be able to manage the tension that exists between shareholders, employees, customers and the broader community expectations around ethical behaviour. The not-so-great CEOs are self-motivated; they tend to favour their bonus over other bigger company objectives. 

Rock star CEOs, far from being ‘rarely seen’, seem to have a bigger ego and are not afraid to put their own personal views, values and opinions on display, at the risk of being the ‘face of the organisation’ and therefore creating their own opinions as that of the company they represent. Publicising a point of view on social or political issues that are not directly related to their area of operation can be problematic.

What does it say when an organisation takes a position on the Voice referendum? Does it mean that all employees should agree as well? Are they trying to say that they speak on behalf of their whole team? Does that then silence discussion about social issues within the organisation?

While it can be vital that some issues need some organisations to take a position; real efforts to meet community expectations is about building a moral business that contributes to the broader society with value greater than it costs to create that value. They do not just create financial instruments that take resources from the less financially resourced and funnel it toward the more financially resourced.

Rock star CEOs can be well known for coming into an organisation and in an effort to shake things up and leave a mark. Al “chainsaw” Dunlap, American CEO to Kerry Packer’s publishing empire in the 1990s was one such leader; as highlighted in the article he “spent much of his career jumping from one company to the next, making them more “efficient”, which is corporate speak for cutting jobs”,  in one business he worked for he cut 11,000 jobs, or 35% of the employees in the short time he was there. 

Of course, there may be a time and a place to warrant removing the dead wood and taking a ‘chainsaw approach’ to a bloated, overly bureaucratic organisation full of unproductive jobs that sap financial resources, reduce actual service and reduce experimentation. But many ‘rock star’ CEO’s seem to have this approach of taking it out on employees as the main tool in their tool kit, with little regard for the people or the impact of their actions. The people suffer, while they stand to benefit from short term gains to the share price or a big personal bonus.

A good leader needs to take so much more into consideration when it comes to restructuring. What is the intention of taking this kind of drastic action? How does it affect the people in the business, the culture, their motivation, their loyalty?  

Rock star CEOs tend to not only benefit from multimillion-dollar salaries, but, as we have seen in recent examples, seem to be getting massive exit bonuses when they leave the company. What is really hard for a fair-minded society to swallow, is how these leaders can sack legions of workers under the guise of reducing costs, reduce the quality of the output of the organisation, get caught doing the wrong thing … and then leave with a multimillion-dollar bonus.

How do we accept that as a society?

Particularly while nurses, teachers, child care workers get paid as poorly as they do. I worry that we have mistaken self-interest for leadership in these instances.

Great leaders are able to successfully navigate the tensions that exist across all the dynamics of a business and the environment in which it operates. They don’t favour themselves and their self-image so much as manage the tension between profitability, engaging and meaningful work for employees, improved products and services for customers and ethical standards for the community.

What are your thoughts on rock-star CEOs and their leadership abilities? I’d love to hear your thoughts. If your leadership team could do with my help get in touch today.

Share News