Top 3 Myths About Top Executives

Last Updated Oct 12, 2010 6:33 PM EDT

Myths About Top Executives They make big bucks. They've got power and perks. They jet halfway around the world for a meeting and are back for dinner the next day. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Good work if you can get it, right? Well, I'm not going to lie to you; it is all that. But I still gave it up, and for good reason.

The truth is that executive life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Much of the disparity between perception and reality comes from the fact that only a tiny percentage of executives work for big companies, while the vast majority work for much smaller firms. And that makes one helluva difference in lifestyle.

All the compensation surveys you hear about and much of what the media covers is focused on the Fortune or S&P 500. Just to put that in perspective, there are roughly 9000 publicly traded companies in the U.S., and perhaps ten times that number of privately held corporations. That means you're only hearing about less than one percent of the total, and if we're talking all senior execs versus CEOs, then it's less than one tenth of that.

Look, I'm not saying you should cry for these people; they're responsible for the choices they make. I'm just trying to get people to look past the media coverage and the sound bites and understand what life is really like for most executives in the real world. It's not a winning lottery ticket. It's hard work, stress, and dedication.

Myth #1: Executive pay is out of control
Sure, reading an annual salary survey of S&P 500 CEOs will either give you a heart attack or make you nauseous. But the truth is that most executives work for small and midsized firms where the compensation is much more reasonable and typically not huge multiples above the next level down.

For example, when I was a senior exec, plenty of employees - managers and individual contributors - made almost as much as I did, even at public companies. The big ticket was stock options, but they're worth zero if the company fails to go public or the stock declines in value. I certainly experienced both.

Myth #2: Jetting around the world is a great life
Besides working long hours, many executives are away from home at least 25 percent of the time. And while some do get to go first class, that's the exception, not the rule. Then there's all the time away from the family, jet lag, sleep deprivation, and the added stress of a hectic, complex life.

For example, I traveled about 2 million air miles over the last 10 years of my career and commuted halfway across the country weekly for more than a year. All those red-eye flights nearly killed me. And I know lots of execs who travel way more than I did. My brother-in-law, a VP with Rayovac, splits his time between the U.S. and China, so he's only with his family half the time. That's a big sacrifice.

Myth #3: They don't really work; they just sit in meetings all day
Sure, top executives spend a great deal of time managing their people and in meetings, but as the chief finance, marketing, sales, technical, whatever officers of the company, they're also individual contributors. That's what accounts for the long hours. I averaged about 60 hours a week, not counting all the travel time away from home. And no, you don't get overtime.

Bottom line: Especially these days, most executives are on 24-7, sacrifice significant family time, and experience enormous stress. Their dedication is a big part of what's great about America and capitalism. Just wanted to provide a broader perspective.

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Images 1) CC 2.0 courtesy Flickr user Richard Moross, 2) courtesy Etihad Airways

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