Are CEOs obsolete?

Steve Jobs Apple

COMMENTARY Most people seem to think that CEOs are like medieval rulers with absolute power and authority over their companies. For the most part, that's just a myth. Sure, some CEOs do have a Napoleon complex, but that tends to be self-limiting and therefore more rare than you think, especially in established public companies.

In any case, a Fortune magazine article tilted "Are we living in a post-CEO world?" got my attention the other day. I'm sure you can understand why; it's an intriguing headline.

The premise of the story is that companies -- actually technology companies -- used to be run by all-powerful "guru" CEOs. But now that the business world has become more complex, that model is being replaced by one of team leadership, where CEOs rely more on their management teams to make decisions and run the show.

That sounds logical, but there's just one problem. It isn't true. It's actually always been that way. I go back over 30 years, give or take, and in my tech industry experience, CEOs and boards have always relied on their executive management teams to run their companies. Sure, every team needs a leader, and companies are no exception. But here's the thing.

I've sat in thousands of executive staff meetings, operating reviews, business planning and budget meetings, strategic planning sessions, and board meetings of companies big and small. The CEO doesn't just walk into the room and say, "Guess what? We're buying a company today." That's simply not how executive-level decisions are made in the real world.

Sure, there are loads of ways that anything from the creation of a new product line to a major strategic shift can occur in the corporate world. And every company's processes are different. But one thing's for sure: it doesn't happen that way, except perhaps in the most dysfunctional companies.

Granted, there's wide variance in the autonomy CEOs impart on their fellow corporate officers and executives, not to mention all sorts of corporate cultures and organizational strategies. But the basic structure has always been the same: CEOs lead management teams that run companies. Period.

The myth of the visionary CEO
A day in the life of a democratic workplace
Top 3 executive myths

What's funny is I've worked with dozens of technology company CEOs over the years and there are some pretty major control freaks in the bunch, that's for sure. Even so, nearly all of them led their management teams as teams, and the ones that didn't were dysfunctional outliers that didn't survive.

Pick any iconic CEO you like -- Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Andy Grove -- it doesn't matter. Were they highly opinionated and, in many cases, the final decision maker? Absolutely. But one of the reasons they were successful at scaling their companies is because they built and relied upon great management teams.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure there are plenty of leaders of family-run businesses, startups and old-school companies that didn't get the memo back in the 80s about how to scale and manage a global company nowadays. Nevertheless, for decades now and as far back as I've been around, successful companies have been led and run as teams.

Comments