Thursday, April 22, 2010


CEOs come in many flavours. While some are plain vanilla, others are charismatic. While some fail, others redefine success. And while some hide, others believe in the fact that “seeing is believing”. Which one are you?

Undercurrents of controversies have always chaperoned the question: Should a CEO’s face represent the company and vice-versa? The answer is, yes – for good or for worse! That black and white photograph of Henry Ford, standing next to the ancient Model-T will always represent what Ford Motors was during its glorious heydays. Bill Gates will always be the representative of the might of Microsoft, all across the world, despite his giving away all his executive powers. Carly Fiorina will remain in the memories of thousands, for having been the loud public CEO, who created the much criticised HP-Compaq giant (the world’s largest IT company today). And whose face do you recall when you think of Dell Computers?

Much has been written and discussed about the Fed’s unceremonious firing of Rick Wagoner (the-then CEO & Chairman of General Motor Co.) in March last year, after he came under heavy criticism for allowing GM to bloat beyond logical dimensions, thereby paving way for $82 billion in losses since he took over as its CEO in June 2000. The Harvard Alumnus scrapped the EV1 electric- car program and diverted resources away from hybrids (his biggest mistakes as he confesses), but had built enough credibility to carry all shame on his strong shoulders. And to give what’s due to him, he became the symbol of the imperial auto manufacturing American nation called GM, so much so, that the Fed practically had to ask him to step down in lieu of further aid to GM. Wagoner represented brawns; the man who had worked for 32 years at GM, ever since he earned an MBA degree, represented GM. [For the critics, under Wagoner, GM had more cars that exceeded 30 miles-per-gallon than any other automaker in the world!]

To many, Akio Toyoda, the President of Toyota Motor Co., represents nothing but a meteoroid. Toyota surpassed GM in 2009, to become the world’s largest producer of automobiles for just a year before it got off to the worst possible start to 2010. To many more, he still cuts that sorry figure who apologised before the US Congress for his act of recalling 8 million vehicles this year, while taking home a $16.4 million slap. To most, the only picture that comes to mind when you imagine what Toyota is, is its three ellipsical logo. Toyoda was a character unknown to the world; no doubt, even when he testified how the company was committing to recalls in all good faith, he failed. You don’t believe a CEO whom you’ve never seen before – neither as a customer, nor as a Senator!

“If you get your face and your name out there enough, people will start to recognise you,” says this flamboyant CEO of over 200 branded companies. Over the years, he has launched costumes to amuse his business partners, customers and the media. He has thrown himself off tall buildings, hung off bridges and taken deep sea dives – all to grab attention. He had the gall to drive a tank into Times Square and fire at the Coke signboard to launch the challenge against the big cola maker. His bet – Virgin Cola. The CEO – Richard Branson, who’s flamboyant smile represents his group of over 200 companies – the Virgin Group. “A young girl once came up to me and told me I could be famous because I looked just like Richard Branson,” says he. That’s the power of being a CEO brand.

Larry Ellison, the highest paid CEO of 2009 is the poster boy of Oracle. Not easy to become a recognised face amongst the masses, especially when your company has a B2B business structure, but Ellison, born out of wedlock to a 19-year-old Jewish mother, had managed his public image quite well, despite having been married four times! He started Oracle in 1977 (the same year when Wagoner joined GM), investing $1,400 of his own money. Today, it is worth $131 billion on the bourses, and Ellison is the sixth richest man in the world. Ellison has suffered a series of personal mishaps, but has managed to cover it up well, for the sake of his corporation, which has grown in leaps by the years. Today, he is known for his extravagant lifestyle, his $200 million real estate, his fleet of exotic cars and his personal aircrafts. What he is known for most widely is for being the poster CEO of Oracle.

Jeffrey Immelt is another name that has earned a huge critique following –for converting GE into more of an Automated Teller Machine that a manufacturing giant (close to 50% of GE’s 2009 revenues came from GE Capital Services). The slowdown hit it hard, washing away close to $100 billion of its Mcap. It wasn’t an easy task to become the GE ambassador to the world, but Immelt, minus all his shareholder wealth destroying acts, has done his bit to play it to the galleries. Some blame him, some praise him, but everyone knows him.

Larry Ellison’s good friend Steve Jobs is no different. From being the brand ambassador at the launch of every iconic Apple product to fi ring employees at will, his fame has grown over time, at manifold the rate at which he has lost pounds. If it’s not Steve, it’s not Apple!

The list of CEOs who have led from the front, both in the boardrooms and outside in the open isn’t short. From Warren Edward Buffett (of Berkshire Hathaway) to Rupert Murdoch (of News Corporation), from Larry Page and Sergey Brin (who are known for their product Google, unlike the founders of Orkut, LinkedIn and Twitter) to Mark Zuckerber (the 24 year-lad founder and CEO of Facebook and the youngest selfmade billionaire in the world), from Indra Nooyi (“The Iron Woman” who is not just the most powerful woman in the world on many lists, but also one who has transformed PepsiCo’s portfolio, and publicly so, leading the aggressive expansion of PepsiCo into nations like Brazil, Russia, India and China; not many would recall who CocaCola’s CEO is!), the list is long.

Think about it, American CEOs, you’ll know a dime a dozen. But if I were to ask you to name a few Japanese CEOs, apart from Akio Morita (and perhaps Toyoda too), you would know none. Is that the reason why for the past many years, Japan is suffering from a debilitating recession? I don’t have the answer to that, but what I can surely say is that Japan lacks CEOs not only at the corporate level, but even at the country level (for example, the US has Obama) who would be able to jumpstart the economic growth by individually becoming the face of change. Clearly, the term ‘leading from the front’ was not made for no reason. on. 4Ps


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