CEOs, it's time to leave your celebrity at the door

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

It's time for chief executives to give up their celebrity status and get back to business.

With a wave of scandals thrusting corporate titans into the hot seat, CEOs need to roll up their sleeves and return to the trenches with the charge of running their companies effectively and ethically.

That means shedding the public persona that became a CEO badge in the booming 1990s. Given their increasing accountability for any corporate misdeeds under their watch, CEOs can't afford to be distracted from what they were hired to do.

"The days of the celebrity CEO who was there to build his own marquee value is over," said Joe Goodwin, who runs the Atlanta-based executive recruiting firm The Goodwin Group. "The job of the CEO is to run the business and they have to get back to doing that."

The economic boom vaulted CEOs into the spotlight. They crowded glossy magazine covers that were once reserved for movie stars and sports figures, and took in fat paychecks that rivaled the top echelon of Hollywood elite.

Many, like Enron Corp.'s CEO Kenneth Lay and ImClone Systems Inc.'s Sam Waksal, became fixtures on the privileged social circuit and in society columns. Even their homebuilding, such as the 64-room Bel-Air home bought by Global Crossing Ltd.'s Gary Winnick for $65 million in cash, was public knowledge.

"Their superstar status pushed the individual, not the organization, into the spotlight," said Al Vicere, executive education professor of strategic leadership at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University. "It became about me, the CEO, and making my mark in the world."

While their stars were rising, many CEOs failed to stay focused on what was happening back at company headquarters. That allowed for rampant wrongdoing up and down the corporate ranks, some so serious that it has destroyed organizations and severely punished employees and shareholders.

Get out of the ego pool

But the recent headline-grabbing scandals have left CEOs with little choice in what to do next.

"The traditional role of the CEO is back," said W. Scott Sherman, assistant professor of management at the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University. "Your job isn't to get caught up in the ego pool, but to be in charge of executing what happens in the organization."

To start, CEOs should be equally true to their employees, customers and shareholders. In recent years, pleasing stock investors outweighed everything else, motivating executives to push for quick signs of earnings growth.

It's up to top executives to refocus attention toward long-term, sustainable growth, and make sure that message reaches Wall Street.

Within their organizations, CEOs need to firmly establish a moral code, and let everyone know the consequences of not following it.

"Get out of the corner office and talk to your employees," said Newmont Mining Corp. CEO Wayne Murdy, who regularly visits his company's facilities away from its Denver headquarters. "You have to set the tone for what is expected and wear your values on your sleeve."

It's the job of CEOs to immerse themselves in the depths of the company, not micro-managing every employee's move but setting up processes that will keep all levels of the company connected and prevent any rogue worker from doing wrong.

CEOs should be willing to openly question everything that doesn't make sense -- from complicated accounting practices to product design to new marketing programs -- and encourage employees to do the same.

At the online-trading company Ameritrade Inc., CEO Joe Moglia says constant dialogue throughout the organization helps ensures honesty and integrity. He holds question-and-answer sessions with employees every six weeks, embraces feedback from an advisory council made up of non-managers and promotes "lunch-box" talks that bring together small groups from different parts of the company for casual discussions.

"CEOs have to create an environment where people are always trying to do the right thing ... and everyone knows that not doing the right thing isn't tolerated," Moglia said.

The job of the CEO is to lead the company, but that got lost in self-promotion for too many executives. Now, they will have to get back to the basics of corporate leadership.

"Everyone now is a villain, but it is a few bad guys who did these things," said Barnes & CEO Marie Toulantis. "But now we all have to keep our heads down and try to make our businesses the best that they can be."

Rachel Beck is a business columnist for The Associated Press.

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