If you’re like most consumers of business and financial news, you gobble up those useless lists of “Best Leaders” and “Most Admired Companies,” trusting that people in my line of work have the right formula to measure what’s “best.”
Over the years, I’ve been in the room when some business “best” lists were put together, and the creators of David Letterman’s Top Ten look like a Nobel Prize jury by comparison.
I got to wondering why so many of us do such a bad job of evaluating the quality of our leaders after Warren Buffett and Howard Schultz made news last month for doing what chief executive officers rarely do. They used their bully pulpits to take stands that weren’t, on their face, self-serving, and that had the potential to benefit people outside the privileged class. Who knew that business leaders could step up to lead?
Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Aug. 14 saying that mega-rich Americans like him ought to pay more taxes. The story went viral.
Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Corp., went public Aug. 12 with a proposal that business cease making political contributions until Congress and the president come up with a “fiscally disciplined long-term debt and deficit plan.” Ditto the viral story thing.
You can love or hate their proposals, but you’ve got to admit that Schultz and Buffett are a breed apart from their CEO brethren. Somehow, though, we keep putting the wrong executives on a pedestal. Why do we fawn over glitz and future felons instead of seeking out real leaders?
For one thing, we love those dopey lists, which sometimes aggrandize people or companies that may have satisfied a publication’s set of metrics, but may not be worthy of our adulation. To help discriminating readers get smarter about who deserves, and doesn’t deserve, our admiration, I’ve compiled -- what else? -- a list, including tips on how to see through flawed news coverage of CEOs and companies. Would somebody out there please consider tracking some of these?
No. 1. The Five Most Self-Serving Op-Eds List
If you really want to learn something about business executives, watch how they use the platform that comes with the job. Are you seeing their bylines on op-eds that whine about over-regulation, or are they, like Buffett, putting themselves on the line writing controversial articles that recommend policies that might benefit the public at large, even at their own personal expense? A theme that wily CEOs love: ranting about how they will have to cut back on all the wonderful products they offer to consumers if regulators crack down.
No. 2. The Most Flawed CEO Metaphors List
CEOs make lots of proclamations, but not all of them ring true. A favorite of mine was in a New York Times magazine story in December 2010 titled “America’s Least-Hated Banker,” an uncomplimentary compliment of a headline if ever there was one. JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon -- a winner in “best” executives lists over the years and the subject of the article - - compared his bank’s offering of loans, credit cards and investment products to what customers get at Wal-Mart. If they’re really comparable, is Dimon willing to let customers belly up, Wal-Mart style, to the bank’s customer-service desk for full refunds whenever those loan agreements or credit cards prove to be defective? My guess is customers are more likely to be greeted with a copy of the bank’s mandatory arbitration policy.
No. 3. Business’s Greatest-Ever No-Comments List
As Sherlock Holmes discovered, there’s a lot to be learned from the dog that doesn’t bark. I called media relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group that isn’t exactly shy about voicing its opinion, and asked what it had to say about the recent proposals by Buffett and Schultz. “At this point, we are not weighing in on either one of those,” said spokesman Bryan Goettel. Is that what you should expect from a group whose membership is chock-full of well-known business leaders and has lots to say about things like taxes? Warren Bennis, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, isn’t surprised the group ducked the question. “The Chamber of Commerce is doing its job,” which is apparently to avoid calling attention to its own policies on taxes and the deficit amid the constructive talk by Buffett and Schultz. The Business Roundtable, the CEO group that says on its Web page that “businesses should play an active and effective role in the formation of public policy,” went for radio silence when I called and e-mailed with questions.
No. 4. The Lamest Contrary for the Sake of Being Contrary Writers of the Year List
If you want to be a very cool journalist, you come out fastest with an argument about corporate and political big shots that runs counter to the prevailing news. This does nothing to advance public policy, but it can activate an ego gratifying Twitter-fest celebrating the clever writer. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a loser-rat-womanizer in the headlines? Then be first to write that he’s a victimized hero. Buffett is getting praise for calling the fat cats to task? Then get out a story telling him to go write a check if he wants to pay more taxes. This instant contrarianism is usually filler on slow days when the writer had nothing else to go with.
No. 5. The Lists You Shouldn’t Pay Attention to List
This is a very long list, and to get on it, you have to produce a feature story replete with breathless and hyperbolic language describing the people or companies who have made the cut as “best.” Steve Jobs didn’t just make Apple Inc. the most valuable technology company in the world, according to Fortune magazine’s “Businessperson of the Year” feature published in November 2010. He made it “the most valuable tech company in the galaxy.”
No. 6. The Real Leaders List
This is as short as the previous list is long. Paul Janensch, professor emeritus of journalism at Quinnipiac University, says that Buffett’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy was a big splash because it was a man-bites-dog story. But “don’t hold your breath waiting for CEOs of utilities and manufacturing companies to lobby for tighter environmental restrictions or hedge fund titans to demand tougher regulation of the markets,” he says.
No. 7. The Top 100 Financial Advisers Who Made Money for Their Clients List
Wall Street is a place where a lot of people make a lot of money because they know how to measure things. So how come we get lists that measure financial advisers based on the revenue they make (see the Aug. 27 Barron’s) but not based on the money their customers make? On second thought, I take it back. You will never see a list like this.
No. 8. The Top Mutually Beneficial Relationships List
Lists are catnip for readers with short attention spans, an advertising bonanza for publishers (last year’s winners are natural targets for sales calls to run ads in next year’s feature) and a boon to any public-relations staff navigating a crisis. When reporters call with a tough question about the boss, flacks can cut them right down to size with a sneering, “You know that Mr. Indicted CEO is on the Top Leaders in the Universe List for 2011, didn’t you?” List articles have legs, says Alec Klein, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “Those stories are disseminated widely by PR folks afterward,” he says. “It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”
No. 9. The Most Boring CEO List
Now we’re getting serious. Nancy F. Koehn, a business historian at Harvard Business School, says list-mania doesn’t always produce losers; it’s just that you have to look past the executives riding a momentary wave to find the gems. “On all those lists there are always serious hitters,” she says, citing A. G. Lafley, who retired as CEO of Procter & Gamble in 2010, as a “very, very serious leader” who is “completely unsexy,” but still makes all the lists. Happily, Koehn is predicting that Buffett and Schultz will inspire other executives to speak up about what’s wrong with government, calling the two CEOs “canaries down what will become a much more crowded mine shaft.”
No. 10. I don’t have a No. 10. Be wary of the list that has to add up to a nice round number, because it will be padded with filler. How do I know this? Because I’ve whipped up Top Ten stories before.
As Koehn notes, the ubiquitous lists don’t get it all wrong. Buffett and Schultz have for years found their way to the top of the inventories of excellence.
But so did Mark Hurd, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., who resigned after an investigation found he’d had a personal relationship with a contractor who had received inappropriate payments from HP. Businessweek, purchased in 2009 by Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News, named Hurd 2007 Businessperson of the Year in an online story in January 2008. (A spokeswoman said the magazine doesn’t publish that feature today, though it publishes other “best” lists.) Others the article honored as great leaders were Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. has been under fire for phone-hacking, and John Thain, who famously spent $1.2 million to decorate his Merrill Lynch & Co. office even as the firm was verging on collapse before Bank of America Corp. bailed it out. Similarly, the 1999 book “Lessons from the Top” listed Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski and Kenneth Lay among 50 of America’s “Best Business Leaders.”
Ebbers and Kozlowski are in prison. Lay was awaiting sentencing for securities fraud when he died in 2006. If you insist on paying attention to roundups of the best and greatest, read them for their entertainment value. To really understand who the great leaders and companies are takes more than fancy metrics and a show of hands at an editorial meeting.
(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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