HBR's "Best CEO" List Full of Surprises

Last Updated Dec 22, 2009 10:06 AM EST

When business thinkers gather to compile their Best CEO list, the names they come up with often are the same. You'll see Jobs, and Dimon, and Bezos, and Chambers, and Ghosn -- the usual suspects. Boring.

Which is why I like Harvard Business Review's just released collection (Registration required). Pick #2 had me saying, who? And pick #3 did the same. In their Top 100 a good quarter were people or companies unfamiliar to me. Bart Becht? Praxair? A.J. Scheepbouwer?

Also notable are the demotion of execs who often populate "most admired" or "top paid" lists. Folks including Carols Ghosn, Jeff Immelt, and Sam Palmisano take a reputation haircut on HBR's rankings.

Why are the star performers here so different than what you would read in other business publications? Because the criteria used by authors Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen is different. Here CEOs are ranked by how their public companies performed over their entire time in office -- or, for those still in the job, up until September, 2009. In other words, these execs have been outstanding at creating long-term value. Nearly 2,000 CEOs worldwide were rated.

Here are the Top 10:

  1. Steve Jobs, Apple
  2. Yun Jong-Yong, Samsung Electronics
  3. Alexey B. Miller, Gazprom
  4. John T. Chambers, Cisco Systems
  5. Mukesh D. Ambani, Reliance Industries
  6. John C. Martin, Gilead Sciences
  7. Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon.com
  8. Margaret C. Whitman, eBay
  9. Eric E. Schmidt, Google
  10. Hugh Grant, Monsanto
On average the top 50 increased the wealth of their companies' shareholders by $48.2 billion, adjusted for inflation, dividends, share repurchases, and share issues, according to the authors.

Other interesting factoids:

  • A third of CEOs who had an MBA ranked, on average, 40 places better than the CEOs lacking the sheepskin. "This finding suggests that MBA CEOs have not destroyed value, as some critics would have it."
  • CEOs who took over from a lower-ranked predecessor did better than those who took the top job from a hot ticket. "Many would argue that a strong company is the best platform for generating superior results. We found that to be far from the case."
And here is my favorite observation. Nice guys do finish first. It was often the "quiet" CEOs who delivered consistent outstanding results, report Ibarra and Hansen.
"Their success makes a persuasive argument for a new approach to evaluating CEOs. Only by analyzing performance over their tenure and beyond can we begin to understand the nature of great leadership."
What do you think of these rankings? Do Top CEO lists over reward charisma and short change performance?
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.