CEOs on stage
Gerrit Zalm, the chief executive officer of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, appeared before his staff in drag last week. In a performance that belied his usually dour management style, Zalm was dressed as his sister, “Priscilla.” He may make a bulky drag queen, but the CEO’s performance as a Madame working in the world’s oldest profession offered a series of brilliant comparisons to the profession of banking today.
Posing in a purple dress with startling red hair, Priscilla gave her brother a lesson in “putting the customer first” from a “flourishing business with a centuries-long tradition.” She noted that Zalm had given up working for leading — a choice that immensely benefited his salary.
“You should start with core values. In my company, we have three: reliability, professionalism and ambition. We try to give the customer a warm welcome. We aim for long-term client relationships and we deliver what we’ve agreed upon.”
The satire was clear enough. Priscilla suggested that this professional diligence in her brothel was in contrast to her brother’s bank. It lampooned a banking culture in which the top bosses were immensely well-rewarded, while customers suffered. The morals at the bank were lower on an ethical scale than those of a bordello. From inside of a large bank, Zalm was saying, as he beat his fake breasts, he was in a sleazy business.
It was, to be sure, an absurd way of demonstrating a point, but ABN AMRO has had an absurd two decades. Created as a merger between two of the Netherlands’ biggest banks in 1991, it grew so large that it was referred to in its home country simply as “The Bank.” It embarked on a rapid series of acquisitions abroad — in Italy, the U.S. and India. In 2007, it was taken over by a consortium led by the Royal Bank of Scotland in a deal worth close to $100 billion, just before the crash. One grossly over-extended bank took over another.
In the immediate aftermath, both RBS and ABN AMRO were nationalized by the British and Dutch governments. Zalm’s cabaret was a sly commentary on twenty years of irresponsible business.
His act has been compared to the exuberant theatricality of other CEOs, like Richard Branson of Virgin, who dressed as a female attendant in one of his own planes after losing a bet, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer. These comparisons are misleading. Jobs, Ballmer and Branson were all, in different styles, marketing their products. Zalm, in moving out of his prescribed role, was commenting on the morality of his business.
Zalm’s performance was also a signal that the top executives of large businesses are now stepping away from their desks to occupy podiums that have traditionally been the preserve of politicians. Some of them are now addressing the future of society and of capitalism, the system in which they and their companies reside.
Launching his new model autos at the Detroit motor show last week, Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally — a much lauded business leader — said that “simply providing more cars was not going to work.” To those — like his board and stockholders — who might object that his job in fact is to provide more cars, he answered “the most important thing is to look at the way the world is and where the world is going and develop a plan.”
Or read Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, in a long reflection on “the remedies for capitalism.” He argues that “what we have experienced over recent years is not, in my view, so much a crisis of capitalism as a crisis of ethics.” He says, “in a world of scarcity, there will be greater pressure to ensure that wealth is created not just for the few but that the benefits are spread more widely… if you doubt the truth of this, just look at what is happening on the streets of Cairo and Tripoli, where educated, digitally connected young people who have been locked out of the formal economy are challenging the prevailing political and economic orthodoxy.” This connection between the boardroom, the seminar room and the streets of Cairo has previously belonged only to presidential orations or to the lectures of famous intellectuals. It’s now being taken into the executive suite.
The management consultant firm McKinsey, in a series of conversations with CEOs about the future of long-term capitalism, has revealed an anxiety about short-term pressures and a commitment — at least rhetorically — to social responsibility. In many ways, these officeholders are demonstrating a broader vision of how the world should go than leaders in many countries.
Richard Edelman, CEO of the public relations company that bears his name, notes that his company’s annual “Trust Barometer” shows a decline in trust in politicians, while trust in business leaders has recovered significantly. It suggests to him that leaders in business should use their relative popularity to take on social and political leadership to identify the key challenges in the world and speak to the necessary changes.
This may be asking a lot: CEOs are hired and paid to sell more Fords, stocks or soap. They may believe in their own form of what Charles Wilson, CEO of General Motors in the 1950s, said — that “what was good for our country was good for GM, and vice versa.” But when the corporate and the universal interests clash, which way do they really go?
There is a gap where the political bully pulpits used to be. Socially-minded corporate leaders see a space that needs to be filled to command our attention with sober reflections on where the world will go. But democracies still depend on elected politicians for leadership. A shift of power to business executives leaves the question of how politics can recover from its nadir of distrust. This is an urgent and worrying matter, as power drains from the men and women we elect to lead.
PHOTO: Gerrit Zalm, chief executive of Dutch state-owned bank ABN AMRO, speaks during a news conference to present the company’s 2010 annual results in Amsterdam March 4, 2011. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen