What is the CEO’s primary role?

This morning I read two interesting articles. The first was a summary of survey results produced by Execunet who surveyed their members with this question: “If we had to boil things down to just one critical function, what is the CEO’s primary role?” The answers varied from “increasing shareholder value” to “effectively communicating a vision.”
The second article was an luncheon interview in the Weekend Financial Review (10 November 2012) with the person anointed by the Australian Shareholders’ Association as Australia’s best CEO, CSL’s Bryan McNamee. In 1990 CSL was valued at with a market capitalisation of $23 million and 33 year old McNamee was appointed the CEO. Twenty two years later CSL has a market capitalisation of $23 billion and over the past ten years the annual compound growth in net earnings has been 29%.
However McNamee maintains that too many CEOs focus on the scoreboard and that is where they stumble. Instead he believes his success was due to a continuous cycle of company reinvention combined with a focus on recruiting the best staff and advisors. He also said that CSL’s technical complexity worked in his favour. While many armchair experts could run Qantas or Fairfax brilliantly few would say they could run CSL. That meant there was not the second guessing that occurs so frequently with large listed Australian companies.
Another CEO who I have heard speak, Rob Murray, Chief Executive Lion Nathan National Foods, said the most important role of the CEO was to improve the culture of the organisation both by his behaviour (CEO being the leader of leaders) and by his actions. I tend to side with Rob Murray but would add one caveat. Yes the CEO defines the culture and sets the rules but is also the one person that can break them. What happens in any organisation is the unforseen circumstance where the rules need to be broken. You cannot have anyone in the organisation breaking the rules because the result would be corporate anarchy. But you need to have one person appointed who can break them and that needs to be the CEO.
My favourite example this process in action in the executive pardon for the crime of murder. Each case needs to be judged on its merits. However for the process to work you can only have one person with the right to commute a sentence. And that is the process that most successful governments have chosen.


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Chris Golis - Author


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