A lack of understanding about the true role of a CEO within an organisation
has led to the backlash over the pay packages being awarded
It is open season on chief executives right now. Each day brings a fresh
denouncement of some previously anonymous individual’s remuneration package.
While the popular press has no problem in citing market forces as the reason
why, say, a journeyman Premier Division footballer can earn £10,000 per week,
it appears to be in a state of permanent outrage at similar rewards enjoyed by
our captains of industry.
Of course, this assault on UK boardrooms is partly fuelled by envy.
The US celebrates wealth as a tangible example of success, yet the British
have always had an ambivalent attitude towards personal gain, particularly in
In this instance, however, envy is the by-product of widespread lack of
understanding of the precise role and contribution of a CEO.
If people have little appreciation of someone’s fundamental value to an
organisation, they are more sceptical about how they are rewarded. This lack of
understanding often exists within the boardroom itself.
While most businesses assess the contribution of their staff regularly,
similarly rigorous programmes often aren’t applied to assessing CEOs.
The main problem is arriving at a series of measures that have any real
meaning. What do CEOs actually do?
When, for example, you are hiring a call centre manager, you know exactly
what their responsibilities are and the criteria on which they are going to be
It is much more difficult to determine what constitutes effectiveness at
chief executive level because there is no clear ‘line of sight’ between what
the CEO does day-to-day and how this truly affects an organisation in the long
We know that normally, a CEO is expected to provide leadership and strategic
direction. But how do you measure nebulous concepts?
You also have to factor in a range of issues outside of a CEO’s control that
may affect business performance, such as macro-economic developments,
government regulation, etc.
Also, the CEO’s function is to deliver performance through other people. How
can you measure the performance of individuals who, by the very nature of their
jobs, are charged with delegating specific actions rather than carrying them
These barriers to formal assessment means judgement of a CEO’s performance
is left to the vagaries of public perception.
People fall into the trap of ‘confirmation bias’; they seek out confirming
evidence to support their view of the CEO and discount disconfirming evidence.
So, if people like a CEO, they will hear things that reflect favourably on
them, while turning a deaf ear to bad news or attributing it elsewhere.
The power of ‘context dependence’ helps to distort people’s evaluation of a
CEO’s true value. This law has it that if a company is doing well, the CEO
takes the plaudits; if it is doing badly, the CEO ends up carrying the can,
despite the fact they may have been powerless to change the outcome.
There is a way forward and it comes largely from re-examining the psychology
of performance management.
Typically, when asked about how it assesses performance, a business claims
to have hard measures. But those measures tend to be described in terms of
specific activities, rather than measurable ‘outputs’.
The principle that should govern performance measurement at all levels is
the necessity to be explicit about what needs to be achieved. As long as people
are clear about their destination or target, they are good at working out how
to get there. They cannot work efficiently when they don’t know what they are
expected to achieve. CEOs are no different.
There is a tendency when assessing people performance to measure what is
‘acceptable’. But people need to be assessed on whether they have exceeded an
acceptable level of performance, or fallen short of it.
This is essentially a ‘cybernetic’ concept of performance. Having stretching
goals to strive towards is motivational, while having a clear understanding of
what is unacceptable guides performance.
Providing clear parameters gives people the freedom to decide their own
route and take risks in achieving their objectives. Merely telling people what
is acceptable doesn’t ‘raise the bar’; people are more likely to cruise.
The criteria by which a company leader’s contribution is assessed should be
easily understandable, with only a few well-defined areas, and the results
should be completely public. Key stakeholders should be able to make an
informed judgement about company performance. That starts by understanding how
the CEO is meeting, and exceeding, their brief.
A good CEO should welcome the opportunity for formal assessment because they
will know precisely how they will be judged.
By Robert Myatt, senior consultant, Kaisen Consulting