CEO Secrets Revealed

I am going to explain why 90% of the CEOs in this country, including the CEOs of home building firms, think and act the way they do.

By Scott Sedam | November 30, 2002


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I've got a secret. It's a big one. Although most secrets are better kept to oneself, I have decided to reveal this one. I am going to explain why 90% of the CEOs in this country, including the CEOs of home building firms, think and act the way they do.

If you have been reading the papers, you know that CEO types have had a rough time of late. They get accused of everything from accounting fraud to sexism. It seems that no one respects executives anymore. Although a hard look at the statistics would reveal that the accused represent only a tiny percentage of the whole, the media have no interest in such trivial facts. With competing 24-hour news channels desperately looking for something to fill air time, anchors and pundits will continue to attack the besieged ruling class.

I would consider it a career-defining honor to have the likes of Phil Donahue or Connie Chung attack my reputation on national television. But enough of my fantasies, I am here to help! My theory is that if you understand why these CEOs think the way they do, you will be able to handle them better. You might even cut them a little slack. Trust me, as a former corporate executive, I know - they need it!

First, the demographics. I estimate that at least 90% of the CEOs of companies with more than 100 employees are males age 45 to 55. I cannot provide facts to support this, but I will wager that I am right, and probably conservative. Sure, it is changing, but slowly. For now, you have to deal with a boatload of baby boomer males running our companies.

I am a member of the ubiquitous baby boom generation, generally considered to span from about 1945 to about 1960. Born in '52, I am smack dab in the middle of the group. And I was raised as a small-town Midwesterner, so I think this makes me pretty typical. As such, I spent my formative years watching mid-'50s to mid-'60s television shows. And I was completely fixated on a particular group of shows aimed at boys of that age. We watched them passionately and rarely missed an episode. Most of these shows ran consecutively on Saturday morning on our three (that's right, you kids in the audience, I said three) channels. And I am convinced that the 45-55-year-old male CEO thought process is rooted in the lessons and culture these shows presented. The shows and their stars ran as follows:

  • Roy Rogers, and his loyal horse, Trigger
  • The Lone Ranger, and his loyal Indian, Tonto
  • Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and his loyal dog, King
  • My Friend Flicka, and his loyal man, Ken
  • Rin-Tin-Tin, and his loyal boy, Rusty
  • Sky King, and his loyal airplane, The Songbird.

Not so curiously, these shows have a great deal in common. Here are the basic underpinnings:

  • Life consists of Good Guys and Bad Guys.
  • Every day is a struggle between good and evil.
  • Right is right, and wrong is wrong - no gray areas.
  • Men are men, and women are women, and women are optional.

What? How can I put such a thing in print? Simple, look at the facts:
The Lone Ranger - single!
Sergeant Preston - single!
My Friend Flicka - single!
Rin-Tin-Tin - single!
Sky King - single!
Roy Rogers - wished he were single! (I can prove that, of course, but space does not permit.)

In every episode these guys got into a jam, and women were never part of the solution. (Don't even talk to me about Sky King's niece, Penny. She was causing all the problems!) The lessons repeated themselves week after week, show after show, for years. We were being trained. As the old song from the musical South Pacific says, "You've got to be carefully taught." And oh, how we were taught. The lessons are as follows:

  • Just when you think you have it made, some bad guy will show up and mess with your party (often indicated by tearful females in near-hysterics).
  • You have a problem. Big deal. Problems find you every week. And this is good because you define yourself by confronting and solving problems.
  • Bad guys are dumb, usually ugly and always have fatal flaws.
  • Good guys are smart, good-looking (in a manly way) and can always outthink, outfight and outmaneuver bad guys.
  • You should offer to settle things "peaceful-like," but most times you have to kick some butt. You might get hurt or shot, but it feels really good.
  • The 11th commandment is, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" (preferably ballistic in nature).
  • Teamwork is OK - if you are in charge.
  • Every problem can be confronted and solved quickly - usually in less than 30 minutes (this is very important).
  • Never, ever ask for directions (what, are you nuts?).
  • Here is a really tricky one. You can kiss your dog, your horse, maybe even your Indian friend at any time, but not a girl - unless you have solved a huge problem. If that should occur, give her one of those really solid, dry-lipped, John Wayne kisses at about 2,000 pounds per square inch, where she tries to resist and then melts like warm Jell-O from the sheer pressure. Girls really like that.
  • Manliness is next to Godliness. There is no knowledge of a man (older than 12) ever crying.

I am curious. How many of you found yourself thinking of George W. Bush while reading that list? For my money, he is the very embodiment of the baby boomer male CEO, and I just pretty well described his philosophy, didn't I? (I'm not implying there is anything wrong with that.) This isn't so crazy after all, is it? These shows taught the men of my generation that life is a 25-minute morality play. Here is the five-step script:

  1. Find problem.
  2. Kick butt (problem solved).
  3. Kiss girl (in manly way).
  4. Ride off (fly off, mush off, whatever, just go off) into sunset.
  5. Bed down by campfire and rest because tomorrow there will be another problem.

So now you know the secret. Men of my generation were profoundly influenced by the shows of our youth. So don't be so surprised that you find us impatient, resistant to change, insensitive and valuing firefighting over prevention of problems.

Just to be sure of my theory, I tested it on three female executives in our industry. Their reaction ran pretty much to "put head down, bang it three times on desk and mutter: 'Oh ... my ... God ... that's John!'" It also could be Doug or Ken or Mike. Especially Mike. (The first Mike to call or e-mail and ask, "Was it me?" wins a prize!) So this theory has been officially pronounced valid. I have research!

In time, after the CEOs of my generation have been put out to pasture, I think employees will wish for a return to this group of executives, difficult as we were. This occurred to me as I observed what my cartoon-addicted 11-year-old watches not only on Saturday morning but nearly every day. My son's TV morality play looks like this:

Very ugly megalomaniac-type creature shows up, usually from outer space or the result of a scientific experiment gone bad. This creature is usually male. Creature screams, dragging out each syllable for emphasis, "I will have the power! The world will be mine!"

Pseudo-hero man or boy tries to fight creature but is too weak or too dumb to win. Real-hero woman or girl, using her superior intellect and reason, comes up with a clever solution. Creature is never outright killed; rather, he is banished to some time warp or other official place that holds horrible creatures without actually killing them because that would be wrong. With a wink to the camera, real-hero girl graciously allows pseudo-hero boy to feel like he won the day, while everyone else, including the hideous creature, knows the real story.

Is this the kind of garbage we should be teaching the new generation? Imagine working for a CEO who grew up watching that! The threats of communism, skinheads, talk radio and even the National Education Association pale in comparison.

To females of all ages and every man younger than 35, I swear, you will miss us when we're gone.


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