Their greatness lies in the fact that not only have they created profitable enterprises; they have also created brands that are etched forever in the imagination of consumers
One can decidedly differentiate between an ordinary Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and a great one. Great CEOs are exemplary visionaries, with superlative managerial and leadership skills. They are admired by colleagues and common men alike and are considered idols by millions of young aspiring leaders dreaming of making it big in the corporate world. Their greatness lies in the fact that not only have they created profitable enterprises; they have also created brands that are etched forever in the imagination of consumers. So what are the leadership principles and management philosophies that drive these icons and enable them to take their organisations to stellar heights?
As Brad Feld, an American entrepreneur and venture capitalist, said, “Don’t be afraid to have a big vision, but make sure it’s a clear one”, clarity of vision is one of the main traits of great CEOs.
Taking an example of Steve Jobs, an unconventional leader who demanded excellence from his staff and was controversial for his blunt delivery of criticism. However, his sheer genius; his amazing ability to articulate his vision and dexterity to take his people, investors and customers with him on his journey made him an exceptional leader. Jobs had an exceptional clarity of vision and excelled at designing minimalist devices that broke barriers in computer speeds. He created an ecosystem which could stand alone or work together in an interconnected way-like an iPod connected to a Mac connected to an iTunes store. Apple could manage vast amounts of information through division of labour among the systems. For example, the Mac controlled system administration while iTunes fetched content from cloud storage, freeing the device to concentrate on playing the music. Jobs was motivated more than anything to feel he had made a solid and positive impact on the world during his lifetime. And since he had such high expectations from himself, he was able to achieve excellence.
Jack Welch, perhaps the greatest corporate leader of the 20th century, was the youngest CEO of General Electric (GE) when he took over in 1981. He followed an incremental leadership style and during his two-decade stint, the net worth of GE improved by a whopping 4,000 per cent. He is a management theorist and strategic thinker who championed new initiatives like Six Sigma quality, differentiation and e-business.
Bill Gates, listed as the richest person on this planet for 12 consecutive years, is also a man of colossal vision. He envisioned every person on this planet to have a computer and every computer, a programme, designed by Microsoft. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to achieve his vision. In this process, he has been instrumental in the IT revolution that the world has witnessed. Great CEOs, apart from adding to the bottomline of the company contribute to the society in a big way. It would be hard to talk about the life of Bill Gates and not discuss philanthropy and humanitarianism. Heeding to his mother’s advice before she passed away due to breast cancer, Gates has always taken a selfless approach to his leadership, spending considerable money and time in philanthropic efforts to give to others. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated billions of dollars to causes all over the world, making significant differences in the lives of children and adults. This level of giving back illustrates Gates’ character and focus on social responsibility as a global corporate citizen. It also shows that his pursuit of solutions and making life better went beyond just making a profit. Instead, it was about driving significant change in the world that would make a difference for those who need it the most.
Indra Nooyi, who is an iconic leader, consistently ranked among the 100 most powerful women, when she was the CEO of PepsiCo, the world’s second largest food and beverage company in the world, and was at the helm of managing an employee strength of 30,000 and selling in around 200 countries around the world. She believed in developing two balance sheets: One was to provide return to shareholders and the other was to provide return to the environment.Under her leadership, PepsiCo focussed on people and planet in addition to profit. Nooyi had worked tirelessly to reduce the use of energy, water and packaging and simultaneously providing a great workplace for its employees and associates.
Great CEOs show that great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance. “It’s not where you start out in life that matters, but where you end up”.
This adage fits Ursula Burns perfectly. Born in the poor neighbourhood of Manhattan to immigrant parents and raised by a single mother, she rose to become the first female African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Xerox and also holds the honour of being the first woman to succeed another woman CEO, Anne Mulcahy. Having joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern, Burns progressed through the corporate echelons to become the CEO from 2009 to 2016. At present, she is the Chairperson and CEO of VEON, a senior advisor to Teneo, and a non-executive director of Diageo since April 2018. She is also the member of the board of directors of Uber. She worked very hard to rise above her underprivileged background and did not use her background as an excuse. She worked with perseverance to reach the top of the corporate world and worked hard to return Xerox to profitability. NR Narayan Murthy, a role model for every Indian, is an apt example of “Simple living, high thinking”. He is a billionaire with net worth of about $230 crore but still flies economy and drives around in a simple car. Murthy’s life is an inspiration to all of us and gives a strong message that world-class businesses can be created based on transparency and good governance. Born in a middle class family in Sidlaghatta, Karnataka, the odds of life were no match to this brilliant and enthusiastic person, who, through his discipline and determination created a “Great Indian IT Success Story.”
Infosys, today, is one of most respected IT companies in the world with footprints all across the globe and is the second-largest IT company in India by revenue. But did you know that his first entrepreneurial venture, Softronics, failed to take off? One of the initial challenges faced by Murthy was the inability to take admission in the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) even after earning a high rank and scholarship as the grant was not enough to cover his studies. Since his father was unable to fund his education, he enrolled into a local engineering college but later did his post-graduation from IIT.
Similarly, the failure of his first entrepreneurial venture, Softronics, did not stop him from establishing Infosys and lead it to stellar heights. Murthy follows Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of “practice what you preach.” He has always led by example and believes that the primary responsibility of a leader is to give hope and confidence in the face of adversity.
Taking care of people is one of the biggest attributes of great CEOs. Murthy has been generous in rewarding employees with stock options. Personally, he has given away stocks worth of Rs 50,000 crore to his employees. He reiterates that performance should be rewarded suitably. In Infosys, drivers, electricians and secretaries are among millionaires due to their stock options. Indra Nooyi was also a caring, humane CEO who took care of her employees by being in touch with them and understanding their concerns. She even wrote “thank you” letters to the parents of the employees to show her appreciation to them.
Similarly, Ken Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, believed in reaching out to each employee. He made it a point to answer to each and every mail he received from any of his employees. He travelled around the world to meet staff at different locations from around the globe.To further connect personally with his people, he used to run an open operation where anyone could talk to him.
Great CEOs, because of their innate quality of perseverance and contribution to society, ensure stability and growth of their organisations making them the best in the world. They live by their principles and lead by example, making them exemplary leaders of the corporate world.
Writer: Hima Bindu Kota
Courtesy: The Pioneer