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CEO-Speak: The Language of Corporate Leadership

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    CEO-Speak explores the metaphors and persuasive strategies used by leaders at Enron, Microsoft, AOL-TimeWarner, General Electric, IBM, Nortel, Canadian National Railways, Andersen, Disney, and Alcan-Pechiney-Alusuisse. Amernic and Craig show that CEOs are frequently presented as heroes engaged in "the war of business" who can effect astonishing miracles of financial performance and reinvention. Contesting the notion that accounting is objective, CEO-Speak serves as an introduction to the controversies and ambiguities in corporate accountability and provides rich examples of the excesses of corporate communication.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7559-2
    Subjects: Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-2)

    This book is about the words and language of the chief executive officers (CEOs ) of influential, technologically savvy multinational corporations – people like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Jeffrey Skilling, and Kenneth Lay. Despite the implication of CEOs in the string of high-profile us corporate collapses (such as Enron, Sunbeam, and Worldcom) in 2001 and 2002, and the ensuing reform agenda containing new provisions to improve corporate governance and executive responsibility, CEOs remain largely unbowed; they are the resilient demigods of modern business life and the New Economy.

    The influence of the CEO of a large, powerful business is often culturally...

  5. 1 Why the Words of Business Leaders Matter
    (pp. 3-17)

    Francis Bacon wrote that “the first distemper of learning” occurs when “men study words and not matter.”¹ With these words echoing in our (distemper-ridden?) heads, we venture into this book undeterred, although we remain mindful of invoking the wrath of those subscribing to Bacon’s view. Our focus, unashamedly, is on words, particularly the words written and spoken by business leaders – especially the CEOs of large multinational corporations. We show why the words of business leaders matter.

    We use the expression “CEO-speak” generically to refer to the many incarnations of the words of CEOs: speeches, press releases, interviews, letters to stockholders...

  6. 2 Hyperbole and Delusion at Enron
    (pp. 18-27)

    The second day of December 2001 was a landmark day in American corporate history. On that date, the Enron Corporation, a Houston-based energy, commodities, and services conglomerate, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.¹ Enron was no minnow. It had formerly valued its net assets at US$77 billion, reported annual revenues of up to US$101 billion, and had once ranked seventh-largest on the Fortune 500 list of American companies. Enron was the largest declared bankruptcy in American history.

    In some quarters Enron’s financial difficulties were not entirely unexpected. Enron had already indicated that its financial statements for several previous years were...

  7. 3 Framing Andersen
    (pp. 28-38)

    The collapse of the Enron Corporation yielded another rich example of CEO discourse: the written testimony of a prominent, influential CEO to the hearings of the Financial Services Committee of the US House of Representatives into a corporate failure.¹ That testimony, reviewed here, was provided by Joseph Berardino, the managing partner and CEO of Enron’s independent auditor, the Big Five accounting firm Andersen (formerly known as Arthur Andersen).

    As CEO, Berardino faced a difficult rhetorical challenge in preparing his written testimony. The Big Five accounting firms had been under attack by the Securities and Exchange Commission and a wide range...

  8. 4 The Gates to Microsoft: Exploiting Web Sites
    (pp. 39-50)

    Corporate Web pages should be recognized as rhetorical sites, for they seek to persuade their readers to buy a product, to form a favourable view of a company, or to adopt a way of thinking. The ultimate author of each Web page, of each Web site exercise in persuasion, is the CEO. Just as captains of ocean liners bear ultimate responsibility for what happens on their ships, captains of industry and commerce – CEOs – bear responsibility for what happens in their corporations. In the Internet age, CEOs are responsible for the words and images posted on their corporations’ Web sites. These...

  9. 5 AOLTimeWarner: Claiming the Internet Kingdom
    (pp. 51-64)

    CEO-speak is not necessarily a singular act of a lone CEO. It can be a rhetorical strategy that corporations and their senior executives have learned in order to construct “hyperreal communicative spaces that facilitate top-down control of public discussion and anesthetize the citizenry.”¹ In this sense CEO discourse often represents a collective rhetorical pronouncement by an agglomeration of executives constituting a corporate elite. The subject matter, whether authored by a clearly identified individual or by a collective of executives under the guise of “the corporation,” has an impact beyond the immediate domain of the issuing corporation. Such discourse can overtly...

  10. 6 IBM and the Privileges of an Internet Soapbox
    (pp. 65-73)

    Especially influential is the explicit and implicit CEO-speak on the Web sites of multinational Internet-gatekeeper corporations – the purveyors of enabling software (Microsoft), enabling hardware (Nortel), and major media companies (AOLTimeWarner). These companies have comparative advantages in terms of technical know-how, global recognition, and financial wherewithal. This permits them to use their corporate Web sites as soapboxes.

    Even more importantly, such companies have a privileged capacity to shape knowledge, fashion an Internet culture, and influence social relations through the way that their (often subtle) messages are heard and seen. By virtue of their size, importance, and expertise with computer and Internet...

  11. 7 Constructing Jack Welch, GE’s Corporate Chieftain Incarnate
    (pp. 74-86)

    In this chapter we examine the words of Jack Welch. Between 1981 and 2000, Welch served as CEO of the General Electric Company (GE), “a diversified services, technology and manufacturing company … operat[ing] in more than 100 countries and employ[ing] 313,000 people worldwide.” GE’s roots can be traced back to a company founded in 1878 by Thomas Edison. In the last year of Welch’s tenure, GE reported revenues of US$130 billion and net earnings of US$12.7 billion.²

    We review Welch’s CEO-speak as he inherits power, reaches the zenith of his tenure, and prepares for retirement, focusing on the construction of...

  12. 8 Disney’s Narrative as Personality Prism
    (pp. 87-100)

    CEO-speak is not just a contemporary phenomenon, but it also has a rich historical tradition. We demonstrate this by turning to Walt Disney (in his role as CEO of Walt Disney Productions) and examining his letters to stockholders in annual reports for 1940 and 1941. These letters were crafted during a crisis by a charismatic, yet complex business and cultural leader.¹ They reveal themselves to be accountability documents skilfully prepared to address the exigencies of the situation facing Disney. They are a prism through which we can view the world as Disney made sense of it, and – perhaps surprisingly – they...

  13. 9 Nortel’s “Remarkable” Letter
    (pp. 101-115)

    And now we turn to the CEO-speak of a “remarkable” CEO. On 10 March 2001, journalist Michael Den Tandt described a letter to shareholders written by John Roth, CEO of Nortel Networks, as “remarkable.”¹ This would not have surprised many, for Roth had been named Canadian CEO of the Year in 2000 and inducted into Canada’s Business Hall of Fame.Time Canadahad designated him Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year for 2000.

    Many business commentators, media pundits, and investment analysts believed that Roth’s company, Nortel Networks, epitomized the New Economy. In what seemed like the twinkling of an eye, it...

  14. 10 Three Tenors in Perfect Harmony
    (pp. 116-123)

    CEO-speak can have multiple authors, as evidenced on 11 August 1999, when the CEOs of three major aluminium companies – Jacques Bougie of Alcan (headquartered in Canada), Jean-Pierre Rodier of Pechiney (France), and Sergio Marchionne of Alusuisse (Switzerland) – issued a joint letter announcing that their companies would merge to create the “world’s largest aluminium company.”¹ The three CEOs were on song, three tenors in perfect harmony.

    The joint letter was addressed to audiences outside and inside the three merging companies. It was released through the usual public relations media and appeared on the Web sites of the three companies. The text...

  15. 11 Creating “North America’s Railroad”
    (pp. 124-136)

    In previous chapters we concentrated mainly on the rhetoric of CEOs in their communications with shareholders, the media, governments, and the general public. Here we extend our examination of CEO-speak by reviewing accounting-related CEO rhetoric directed specifically at employees. And rather than continuing to focus on the discourse of CEOs in the private sector, we concentrate on the words of a public sector CEO in a setting unique to that sector: privatization.

    We explore the ways in which accounting language, concepts, and information were deployed by Paul Tellier, CEO of Canadian National Railway (CN) in the two and a half...

  16. 12 Towards Greater Accountability for CEO-Speak
    (pp. 137-144)

    So, there we have it: an examination of a sampling of the written words and hypertext deployed by CEOs to fashion our view of corporations and their leaders. We have highlighted how CEO-speak (especially that which invokes accounting language in the context of corporate financial accountability) operates in a diverse array of settings. This has revealed, among other things, ways in which CEO- speak has been targeted at multiple and singular audiences; and how it has been a framer of rhetorical objectives, a fashioner of perceptions, a shaper of knowledge, and an influencer of social cognition and cultural relations. We...

  17. APPENDIX ONE Skilling and Lay’s Last Letter to Shareholders of Enron
    (pp. 147-152)
  18. APPENDIX TWO Remarks of Joseph F. Berardino, Managing Partner/CEO of Andersen, to the US House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, 12 December 2001
    (pp. 153-164)
  19. APPENDIX THREE AOLTimeWarner’s Internet Policy Statement
    (pp. 165-173)
  20. APPENDIX FOUR General Electric’s 1991 CEO Letter to Shareholders
    (pp. 174-183)
  21. APPENDIX FIVE Letter to Stockholders, 1940 Walt Disney Productions’ Annual Report
    (pp. 184-190)
  22. APPENDIX SIX Letter to Stockholders, 1941 Walt Disney Productions’ Annual Report
    (pp. 191-198)
  23. Notes
    (pp. 199-222)
  24. References
    (pp. 223-236)
  25. Index
    (pp. 237-243)