Working Wounded Blog: CEOs Are Not Celebrities

News Flash: L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco, was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and grand larceny only days after Michael Jackson was found not guilty on all counts.

Other than the fact that both the Kozlowski and Jackson trials made headlines, they seem to have little in common. One case was about a chief executive officer who saw his corporate coffers as a blank check for wretched excess. The other trial explored a very different, and inherently more troubling, form of wretched excess (I guess you can tell that I'm a parent of a teenager and a toddler).

CEOs and celebrities on the surface don't have much in common. And that is exactly the news of these two trials. But to really understand this distinction, we'll have to go back to the '90s when CEOs had their brief moment in the sun as celebrities.

Think back to the magazine racks of the last decade. CEOs, who had long dominated the covers of Fortune and Forbes, were suddenly everywhere. News magazines, "Entertainment Tonight" and gossip columns were all agog over Jack Welch, Ken Lay, Kozlowski and the rest of the top-of-the-corporate-hierarchy crowd.

Just to show how ridiculous any level of business accomplishment had gotten in the '90s, People magazine did a two-page interview with me! Talk about wretched excess.

The boring gray suits of the first 100 years of corporate life suddenly were enjoying something more than just perks and paychecks. They were bigger-than-life-heroes. CEOs talked of synergy, doing more with less, and they all seemed to have the Midas touch.

However, the recent string of CEO perp walks proved that there is one big difference between O.J., Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Michael -- and -- Kozlowski, John Rigas, Martha Stewart and Bernard Ebbers. And that difference is celebrity. Want proof that CEOs are really notcelebrities? While entertainment celebs like Jackson and O.J. walk free, juries today are holding the so-called corporate celebrities accountable for their sins.

Very few of us can moonwalk, sing or captivate a football stadium of screaming fans. "True" celebrities may fascinate us, but we don't necessarily relate to their lives or lifestyle. And that's why we often give them a pass on their mistakes -- legally and morally.

On the other hand, juries aren't buying that the dashing entrepreneurs of the '90s are suddenly $1 million-paycheck-cashing-clowns who "had no idea" what was going on in their organizations. CEOs are on a short leash because we want them to really earn that ridiculous paycheck they're receiving. And if they don't, someone is going to have to be accountable. Because that's what we've all learned about corporations in the past couple years: If you screw up, you pay the price. Even the folks at the very top.

Quote of the week:
"Business schools train people to sit in their offices and look for case studies. The more Harvard succeeds, the more business fails." -- Henry Mintzberg

Weekly book excerpt:
"Roger Dawson's Secrets of Power Negotiating" -- Roger Dawson (Career Press, 1995)

"The biggest trap into which neophyte negotiators fall is assuming that price is the dominant issue in a negotiation. Many elements other than price are important to the other person.

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