The Prototype Boss of the 21st Century?

A recent Financial Times article about Neville Idsell, Coca Cola’s retiring CEO (“Final encore for a man of the people”) struck a chord because of the contrast it posed with a prior Coke CEO, Douglas Ivestor.

Ivestor became CEO in late 1997 after Roberto Goizuetta sudden death. Michael Watkins wrote a HBS case (The Coca Cola Company (A): The Rise and Fall of M. Douglas Ivestor) about the succession. Wall Street was so certain of his credentials that it almost ignored the beloved Goizeutta’s passing. Ivestor was a financial genius, and as the following quotes from the (meticulously footnoted) case show, a ruthless competitor and hard driving operator:
_ “… play by the rule of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, ‘What do you do when your competitor is drowning? Get a live hose and stick it in his mouth.’”
_ “The highly disciplined organizations are the most creative. If you can create high discipline, in effect you’ve created security and safety…. It’s follow-up. It’s returning phone calls. … We operate with a rigid control system. It is an enabler, not a restrictor.”

Yet, 18 months into his tenure, Ivestor stepped down. The man whom Fortune magazine had called the “prototype boss for the 21st century” could not solve the huge problems that had their roots in policies initiated – with Ivestor’s active participation – during Goizuetta’s reign.

In mid-2004, Coke’ Board lured Neville Idsell, a former Coke executive, out of retirement after Ivestor’s successor, Douglas Daft also failed to make headway. Four years later, he is leaving Coke in much better shape. Idsell succeeded not by charting a new path, but by changing how Coke operated. The FT article quotes him saying, “My major was sociology; I am a qualified social worker. I do think it is all about people.” Early in his tenure, he appointed a top executive to focus on internally on Coke’s people and a team to focus on building better relations with Coke’s bottlers. He brought in 150 top executives into a powwow on what ailed Coke and listened to them. He passed over his protégée and anointed a successor whom he called “ambassadorial” and “… one of the world’s great best networkers …”

Idsell, rather than Ivestor, deserves to be called the “prototype boss for the 21st century” – and he is not alone. Two years ago, the Idsells of the world would have stood no chance; today, they are in demand. For example, John Thain replaced Stan O’Neil at Merrill and Jeffrey Kindler replaced Henry McKinnell at Pfizer.

This new breed of executive will not get a free ride on performance. Charles Prince brought a softer edge to Citigroup, but was forced out for failing to resolve Citi’s mounting problems. Interestingly, Citi’s Board did not rush to get back a Sandy Weil look-alike, but sought out an executive with an even bigger reputation for collaborative management: Vikram Pandit.

These CEO choices don’t mean that Boards of Directors are going soft in the head. My money is on the idea that they are belatedly coming to the understanding that the “It’s my way or the highway” style of management preferred by the Ivestors and O’Neils and McKinnells doesn’t work in a networked world.

Let’s build a list of this new breed of CEOs and collectively keep tabs on how they work and how they fare.

Category: Leadership | Tags: , 2 comments »

2 Responses to “The Prototype Boss of the 21st Century?”

  1. reshmi

    Isn’t the Coca-Cola boss called Neville Isdell, not Nevil Idsell? I had an extensive interaction with him when he visited our offices to be guest editor…great sense of humour — naturally because he’s Irish! But he doesn’t drink whiskey — only burgundy wine!

  2. Amit Mukherjee

    Reshmi, my apologies. What this proves is that I should not have been editing my writing while watching the Boston Pops 4th of July celebration on TV with a drink – a Baileys on the rocks – in my hand! I corrected the error. Thanks, Amit


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