Humble CEOs May Make the Best Bosses
With a record number of chief executives being shown the door last year, the top job has never been tougher. The problem, as Bob Fifer sees it, is that company leaders haven't changed their mind-set for many years. As a result, they have fallen victim to growing global competition, says Fifer, coauthor of The Enlightened CEO: How to Succeed at the Toughest Job in Business, a book that counsels corporate executives to look inward in order to avoid being ousted. Fifer should know a few things about CEOs. Besides consulting for heads of companies like Alcoa and British Petroleum for decades, he has run several companies of his own, including Kaiser Associates. Now he's a one-man show at Fifer Associates, which mostly handles smaller companies.
Why write about CEOs?
I've spent 28 years working with CEOs, at first almost exclusively with Fortune 500 companies and their equivalents around the world. I also ran my own consulting companies. Unless you have done it yourself, you don't understand the challenges and frustrations inherent in the job.
What did you learn about the job?
These people are not supermen. They are, in fact, quite mediocre. Back then [in the 1980s], it was an old-boy network. The ones who made it to the top weren't the best; they were the ones who endured the longest. It was a real awakening for a young idealist out of business school thinking that the person at the top must be great.
If companies were always so badly run, why did CEOs only recently come under fire?
Globalization is a huge part of that. If you were the CEO of GM, all you had to do was compete with Ford and Chrysler. You all lived in the same town and breathed the same exhaust. Now you have to compete with Toyota, who comes in with a completely different model. Then come BMW and Mercedes with even another business model. It was a tremendous shock, and you could make this case for every old-line American industry.
So what makes a company leader worth his huge salary?
I personally don't have any problem with CEOs making millions of dollars. If you are really good, you can create billions for shareholders. Good CEOs are fundamentally very humble and are good listeners. The more you can share with the organization, the more motivated and empowered [employees] are to come up with ideas and contribute.
How much of that advice comes from firsthand knowledge?
I ran one company [Kaiser, his consulting firm] for 18 years. The company did very, very well, but we hit a wall. If I knew then what I know now, I would still be there, and the company would be 20 times larger. I would come into the office and, by force of my person and bravado, try to move the company by myself. It worked until we had eight offices on five continents. If I had had more humility and been more principled in how I treated other people, I would have built an organization with depth. No CEO is good at everything, but when people perceive you are selfish and greedy, the holes remain exposed and don't get closed. When you have a strong character, people rally behind you in a way that plugs those holes.
Where are things headed?
I think [business] is getting better, but there's still enormous room for improvement. If shareholders and boards had more control, it would be a better thing. It's the exception, not the rule, that the atmosphere is still too clubby. But it's changing. Because they were raised on the Internet, there is a natural openness in younger generations. They grew up with Wikipedia and Google, so the more natural sense for them is that the path to wisdom is to tap the masses, not hierarchy. The trend is in the right direction.
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.