So you think you can CEO? A futile and unnecesary attempt to defend the internet's most endangered species



It's hunting season. I know it is, because it's the internet, so it's always hunting season. And in the hunting ground of the internet the number one big furry target is the CEO of the major tech company. In this post I ask you to think before you take aim at these beautiful beasts.

A lot of hoo-hah is made of tech CEO's and their incompetence. A lot. Journalists, pundits or commenters: we all delight in taking a swing at those at the top. And it matters not whether you're Ballmer, Cook, Heins or Mayer, you're in the firing line for pretty much every decision - or non-decision - that's made.

  • In his comprehensive overview of Blackberry's plummet from the apex of tech, Jesse Hicks seems to reduce founders and ex-co-CEO's Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie to emotionally unstable, immature and reactive control freaks.
  • After every Apple product release, keynote and even rumour I'm reminded that Tim Cook is just too safe, or too uncreative, or too finance-focussed, or that he just doesn't have 'the magic' Steve Jobs had, and therefore Apple's in the toilet.
  • The level of nuance I've seen in the average comment since the announcement of Steve Ballmer's retirement could be summed up in this YouTube gem: "The Gorilla has left the zoo! Woohoo."

Maybe these CEO's really are this incompetent. I find that hard to believe, but it's possible. Or perhaps it's that in our 140-character-or-less, thumb-up-thumb-down culture we would rather state an extreme without explanation. Maybe we're trying to gain followers: it's certainly popularist to poo-poo a leader. Or perhaps it's just the tall-poppy syndrome in action: we derive superficial comfort when cheap shots are made at those who are more successful than us.

Whatever it is, these summaries leave me unsatisfied.

If these people are as pathetic as we claim, how did they manage to get anywhere near the top, let alone numero uno? Given the level of incompetence suggested, it seems miraculous that these companies have ever been profitable. And if it's all up to the CEO, why are other executives and board members paid unimaginable amounts of money? It seems contradictory: even if it is all the CEO's fault, isn't it the job of the board to keep the CEO accountable?

I'm not saying that it's impossible for a CEO to be responsible for the demise of a company. That would be falling back into the extremist tendencies I'm trying to distance myself from. Rather, I'm saying that it's unlikely the downfall of a company can honestly be reduced to the personality or actions of an individual.

My opinion - granted, a lay-opinion from my easy chair, with no skin in the game at all - is this: the relationship between the CEO and the board, given the context of the major shareholders, is much more important than simply the actions or personality of the woman or man at the top. It's about risk and trust, it's about a group of talented, creative, opinionated, influential people finding a way to coalesce around one strategy.

It seems much more plausible that Lararidis and Balsillie did see the writing on the wall when the iPhone was released, and that, as a team, the board, executives and major shareholders weren't able to agree on a way forward. When there isn't agreement the status quo continues, and the CEO's are forced to put on a brave face in order to minimise drops in share price and consumer confidence.

It seems more plausible to me that the influential parties at Apple had such a high level of trust in Steve Jobs that he was able to take risks no other established company is able to take. Tim Cook hasn't got that level of trust, neither should he be expected to have, and it's going to take a lot of time and internal wrestling before Apple's leadership get comfortable under a new model of risk taking.

This position can't be reduced to 'the CEO's an idiot', and that's deliberate. Both examples above include the CEO as a responsible participant, but not alone. It's the relationships of the influential parties that make a company great. And there isn't one 'right' strategy for a company. There are many options, and it's going to take talent, teamwork and luck to develop and implement the type of relationship structure that will be most effective given the product and powerful personalities of the people involved. In my opinion, to reduce all this nuance to attacking the character and competence of one individual - an individual whose job we are for the most part ignorant of - is barking up the wrong solar system.