There’s room at the top, but not too much fun

Rita Christopher February 19 1979

There’s room at the top, but not too much fun

Rita Christopher February 19 1979

There’s room at the top, but not too much fun


Executive . . . the word instantly conveys a magic sense of power. It’s used to denote prestige in everything from men’s underwear to hotel suites. And from the first Canadian entrepreneurs, who parlayed beaver skins into nationhood,down to John D.Rockefeller and auto executive “Engine Charlie” Wilson,who confidently predicted that what was good for General Motors was

good for America, the tycoons of business have loomed larger than life. They are the latter-day Paul Bunyans, the giants whose corporate myths have become part of our folklore.

But in the steel and glass office towers where today’s mergers are thrashed out, the legendary giants of enterprise would feel as sadly out of place as Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe. “We don’t see the self-made entrepreneurs of the past. In today’s environment, things are very turbulent. We have to have managers who have new sets of skills. They have to be able to see a long way down the road, in many different kinds of situations,’’says Dr. James Nininger, president of The Conference Board in Canada.

From negotiating the price of CocaCola in China to assessing the effects of revolution in Iran, today’s executive demands have created a new breed of managers. Two new books, Art of Being a Boss by Robert Schoenberg and The

Chief Executives by Isadore Barmash, detail the style and substance of the men at the top. Schoenberg interviewed more than 100 grey-flannel-suiters for his manual on how to reach the apex of the executive pyramid. “There’s very little chance to it,” he concludes. “You can plan and position yourself to succeed. Maybe reaching the very top job requires a bit of luck, but otherwise I’d


say the whole process can be assessed very deliberately.”

Deliberate assessment notwithstanding, he rejects the current rash of advice on executive power ploys, strategies on everything from using a lighter as a weapon of intimidation to guidance on how a short boss can cow a six-foot subordinate. Says Schoenberg: “A paramount feature of the sillier how-to-succeed literature is ‘advice’ on how to assume the trappings of power—the slightly bigger office, the better location, the extra stick of furniture—with the thought that Mr. Big will be impressed and give the usurper that power whose accoutrements are being affected. Nonsense.”

Such accoutrements, however, may help to ease the realization that real executive power functions in an ever tightening web of constraints. “I started out my research with a gut feeling that today’s managers weren’t

as good as they had been in the past,” says Barmash, assistant to the financial editor of The New York Times. “Look at the declines in productivity, profitability and even technical innovation. But I concluded that the world of business executives had changed so radically that you couldn’t really make comparisons.”

Gone are the days when the moguls of the industry lived the lives of our workaday fantasies—the great estates, the retinues of servants, the polo ponies and the yachts. With tax accountants and lawyers at his elbow, what contemporary executive would dare utter J.P. Morgan’s immortal advice on seamanship, “If you have to ask the price of a yacht, you can’t afford one.”

Although recreational cruises may be out, today’s executive still has plenty of opportunities for travel—on the company plane for company business. And the modern captains of industry, according to Barmash, now prefer relatively modest homes, trapped servantless and chauffeurless in the suburbs.

Of more concern to executives than an altered lifestyle are the restraints on their business operations, restraints that have led Barmash to conclude most chief executive officers consider themselves a besieged elite. Layers of government regulations with accompanying mountains of paperwork can accompany even the smallest decision. Among the thousands of new standards set by Washington’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, is one that requires cowboys not to work more than one-quarter of a mile from toilet facilities. The result: a spate of cartoons picturing cowboys carrying portable facilities behind their saddles.

And, at the end of an exhausting day, a top executive may well find himself humiliatingly sneaking out the back door of his own building to avoid picket lines of angry consumers, everybody from Ralph Nader’s famous Raiders to groups protesting investment in South Africa and corporate sponsorship of sex and violence in television shows.

While Canada has yet to experience the degree of consumer and stockholder activism that characterizes the United States, at least one prominent Canadian businessman thinks it could actually be of some benefit. “We still have far too many technocratic managements running companies, without regard for pressure from stockholders. I think a little more pressure might be a healthy thing,” says Maurice Strong.

Of course, there still are monetary rewards for executives under fire. Du Pont’s Irving Shapiro earns a reported $457,752, General Electric’s Reginald Jones gets $620,000, and Henry Ford makes do with $970,000. But now even the whopping salaries can lead to more headaches. A group of stockholders has

just filed suit against Ford for appropriating company funds for private junkets and lavish entertaining. “I guess you would have to say it isn’t much fun to be a chief executive officer anymore,” says Harold Williams, chairman of America’s powerful Securities and Exchange Commission, one of the chief government tools for the regulation of private business.

It looks like it’s going to be even less fun in the future. “I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get better,” says Barmash. Management consultant Eugene Jennings adds, “We are really nowhere near out of the crunch. The old ways of management are gone but you just can’t ignore the human toll on chief executives. It’s increasing all the time.” But William Donaldson, dean of the Yale School of Management looks at the problem from a different perspective. “Maybe what business needs is a bit more of the old flash in chief executives,” he notes. To that end, Donaldson himself teaches a course in entrepreneurship at Yale.

Increasingly, corporations on the spot are dividing their chief executive responsibilities among several people, relying on decision by committee to replace decision by a single individual. But this solution to shouldering the executive burden receives far from wholehearted endorsement. “I know that people are going to group decisions in executive committees now and I think it’s just disastrous,” says Gaylord Freeman, honorary chairman of the First National Bank of Chicago. If, as the old saying has it, a camel is a horse designed by a committee, businessmen may find themselves in for a long trek across the desert sands before they reach the next calm oasis.

Rita Christopher