The Worst CEOs of 2010

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Some CEOs had a very bad year in 2010. The first name that comes to mind is Tony Hayward, head of BP at the time of the Gulf oil spill disaster in April. Host Steve Inskeep spoke to professor Sydney Finkelstein of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, about his other picks for Worst CEO of 2010.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some CEOs had a very bad year in 2010. One of the first names that comes to mind is Tony Hayward, head of BP at the time of the Gulf oil spill disaster in April. We spoke with Professor Sydney Finkelstein of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth about his other picks for Worst CEO of the year. And they include Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd, who resigned over the summer.

Professor SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN (Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth): Mark Hurd engaged in some still quite unknown behavior, to be precise, that the SEC is currently investigating.

What he did that we know of is that he had a relationship with a woman who was a marketing consultant and apparently spent a fair amount of time with him. There's questions about expense accounts. There's questions about whether he shared some inside information with her.

It's got to be evident that putting yourself in a situation where you're spending all of that time with someone who doesn't report to you, who you're not related to, is certainly not your wife, is going to send out some potentially dangerous signals. He made himself vulnerable.

INSKEEP: And yet he was the head of a company that was seen as being rather well managed by him.

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: There's irony in this thing, because once he took over as the CEO of HP, he did very well. I think in the last couple of years, his track record has been much more neutral. Nonetheless, he was pretty highly respected. It tells you that one misstep is all it takes when you're at the top of a major organization.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about something that was not obviously immediately a misstep, and yet it seems to concern you. Andrew Mason, who's 30 years old, is the head of Groupon, which is one of the hottest new Internet companies. He had an opportunity, basically, to sell himself out of a job, to sell the company. And he turned down a $6 billion offer from Google. What's wrong with that?

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: Well, six billion reasons why that might not be the best thing to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, maybe he thinks he's going to have 12. I don't know.

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: It's, you know, we're looking into the crystal ball. And I may very well be wrong, but I'll tell you, based on my own research and working with many organizations, I think Andrew Mason looked at Mark Zuckerberg as his role model - the founder and CEO of Facebook. And Zuckerberg had many opportunities to sell his business, and he didn't. And you can see how incredibly valuable that company's become.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other high-tech companies that have had opportunities to sell. Maybe the best example I can think of is Yahoo, where a couple of years ago Microsoft made a takeover offer for Yahoo and Jerry Yang, the founder-CEO said no, not good enough for me.

But if you look at the difference in market value between the Microsoft offer and the actual price that Yahoo ended up being worth afterwards, it was $30 billion. And it's hard to imagine how that could've been a good decision.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's something almost unique to tech companies here, in that if you're running a more traditional manufacturing business or a retail business, you may want to hang onto that business because you see long-term value. But Internet companies tend to have their moment, and then they're going to flame out. And you want to grab that moment and get the money if you can.

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: It's, I mean, it's a great point. The pace of change is so quick. You don't know what's going to happen next. In the case of Groupon, there are plenty of other companies that are doing pretty much the same thing. Groupon is easily in the lead now, but there are companies like Living Social that have recently gotten a huge investment by Amazon.com. Now, that's a pretty good backer, and that'll be a serious competitor, as well.

INSKEEP: You know, there've been an awful lot of questions in recent years about whether even a good CEO really earns the money, because CEO's salaries have grown so enormously in recent decades, really. Is there any CEO in 2010 who you would say earned a huge paycheck?

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think the CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano, is a great example. I think Steve Jobs at Apple, for that matter. Both have had tremendous runs now over several years, where these companies have continued to grow, to do very, very well.

And these are just great leaders in very different ways, but great leaders who have put in place strategies that have been hugely value-creating for shareholders, and to a lot of other constituencies, as well.

INSKEEP: And your feeling is it's not the organization or just the happenstance of the market? They really know what they're doing, and if they left tomorrow, the company would be less valuable.

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: I think that's a good way of saying what would happen, especially for Steve Jobs, where it's not as clear that the other top managers in the team are as deep and as talented as he is. A company like IBM, they do have a tremendous amount of talent. So I give a lot of credit to these leaders. But one of the things a great leader also does is tries to leave in place tremendous skills and talents of other people and helps develop those other people when the CEO has to leave the stage.

INSKEEP: Sydney Finkelstein of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Thanks very much.

Prof. FINKELSTEIN: My pleasure, Steve.

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