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Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs [Paperback]

by Rakesh Khurana
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 26, 2004 0691120390 978-0691120393

Corporate CEOs are headline news. Stock prices rise and fall at word of their hiring and firing. Business media debate their merits and defects as if individual leaders determined the health of the economy. Yet we know surprisingly little about how CEOs are selected and dismissed or about their true power. This is the first book to take us into the often secretive world of the CEO selection process. Rakesh Khurana's findings are surprising and disturbing. In recent years, he shows, corporations have increasingly sought CEOs who are above all else charismatic, whose fame and force of personality impress analysts and the business media, but whose experience and abilities are not necessarily right for companies' specific needs. The labor market for CEOs, Khurana concludes, is far less rational than we might think.

Khurana's findings are based on a study of the hiring and firing of CEOs at over 850 of America's largest companies and on extensive interviews with CEOs, corporate board members, and consultants at executive search firms. Written with exceptional clarity and verve, the book explains the basic mechanics of the selection process and how hiring priorities have changed with the rise of shareholder activism. Khurana argues that the market for CEOs, which we often assume runs on cool calculation and the impersonal forces of supply and demand, is culturally determined and too frequently inefficient. Its emphasis on charisma artificially limits the number of candidates considered, giving them extraordinary leverage to demand high salaries and power. It also raises expectations and increases the chance that a CEO will be fired for failing to meet shareholders' hopes. The result is corporate instability and too little attention to long-term strategy.

The book is a major contribution to our understanding of corporate culture and the nature of markets and leadership in general.

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Editorial Reviews


"The most important--and timely--management book of 2002. Rakesh Khurana pulls back the curtain on . . . the vogue for hiring celebrity outsiders over capable insiders. . . . A thousand hosannas."--

"[This] new book . . . will surely intensify the already hot debate on corporate governance. . . . [It] seems wonderfully rational, not to mention impeccably well timed. . . . Recent events, of course, should make people care about the problems he spotlights. Some chief executives have either looted their companies or mismanaged them in ways that have wiped out billions of dollars of shareholder value."--William J. Holstein, The New York Times

"CEOs often write their own tickets when they ride to the rescue of a company in distress. Khurana details the ways that CEO accountability has diminished and compensation has skyrocketed (while workers' pay, in real dollars, has gone down)."--Adam Rogers, Newsweek

"As Mr. Khurana patiently explains, the rise of the charismatic C.E.O. has been, on balance, a terrible trend for American business. . . . C.E.O.s have justified their ludicrous, pharaoh-like paydays with talk about supply and demand, meritocracy and shareholder value--but as it turns out, there's no steady correlation between any of these."--Stephen Metcalf, New York Observer

"Searching for a Corporate Savior pulls back the curtain on how the system of CEO selection actually works. . . . As a precondition to accepting the job, Khurana found, most candidates insist on taking both the chairman and C.E.O. titles as well as the right to stack the board with their cronies. . . . [M]any of those C.E.O.s have transferred ungodly sums of money from shareholders to their own pockets."--Jerry Useem, American Prospect

"Highly readable. . . . Khurana shows that the damage caused by celebrities in the executive suites does not affect merely employees and investors but society as a whole."--
Toronto Globe and Mail

"Even if a company is in dire straits, is an outsider likely to be the best person to rescue it? Mr. Khurana insists that is rarely the case. As markets go, that for chief executives works in a spectacularly unsatisfactory way, he argues. . . . The search process, with its emphasis on confidentiality, restricts the hunt for potential candidates and puts enormous power in the hands of the recruiting firm."--
The Economist

"A fascinating and grimly entertaining book."--Gene Epstein, Barron's

"In his excellent, readable and highly original Searching for a Corporate Savior , Khurana lays bare the CEO search process and shows how directors at company after company favor executive glitz and corporate pedigree over demonstrated competence--and then grossly overpay their recruits while demanding miraculous results. Not surprisingly, in trying to live up to expectations, the bosses often end up wrecking the company."--Jay Hancock, Baltimore Sun

"Rakesh Khurana takes a big swing at today's cult of the corporate leader, aiming to demolish a few of the shibboleths that company boards hold dear. . . . All in all, this is a refreshing debunking of business mythology."--Simon Clarke, Human Resources

From the Inside Flap

"Rakesh Khurana's brilliant, path-breaking book offers a thought-provoking perspective on the cult of heroic leadership in America. His fascinating insider insights into the decision-making process in corporate boardrooms are intriguing, illuminating, and, at times, appalling. This book would be worth reading for the scope of his research and the breadth of his analysis alone. But he also issues a powerful call for change that should shape the debate about CEO choice and company performance for years to come."--Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School, best-selling author of Evolve!: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow and When Giants Learn to Dance

"This book deals squarely with one of the greatest issues of our time: whether our business leadership is selected in the right way, whether we are getting the right people who are motivated in the right way to promote long-run success. This is a very important book for what it says about the direction of our economy."--Robert J. Shiller, Yale Univeristy, author of Irrational Exuberance

"This is really--and I mean really--a nice book. Khurana explains why the boards of major U.S. corporations actively turn to outsiders and situates this shift in broader trends in management. Providing insight into a broader social transformation while providing an explanation of a specific phenomenon, this book should appeal to a wide audience."--Joel Podolny, Stanford University

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (July 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691120390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691120393
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #971,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rakesh Khurana is the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School. His focus is on the organizational sociology of business elites. He studies the labor market, educational institutions, developmental experiences, and implications of business elites on business and the larger society. He is the author of Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs; From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Education; The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (co-editor); and The Handbook of Leadership Teaching and Pedagogy (co-editor).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark look at the Cult of CEO January 19, 2005
A brutally honest look at what is wrong with how CEOs are chosen in America today. I read an advance copy of this book and could not believe it was allowed to go to press. Dr. Khurana certainly has put his professional aspirations on the line to be so bold, but this is the kind of book that makes a difference in the world.

This book presents what I considered some amazing and enlightening information not normally available to ordinary people. We can read about the stupefying emoluments, titanic disasters, and spectacular firings of CEOs in the popular press, but it is hard to find out the inner workings of how these people got into these positions of influence to begin with. Many of the academic treatises on management I have read seem like distant observations from an ivory tower. Refreshingly, parts of this book sounded to me like the information came from furtive phone calls late at night.

Of course, part of the problem is that the foxes are already in charge of the chicken coop. I, too, would recommend this book to members of corporate boards responsible for the performance of top executives. There are plenty of brilliant executives who should be promoted based upon sound character and true leadership ability. Everyone knows that in many cases this is not happening, but Dr. Khurana has identified the defective process that underlies the problem. It is up to boards of directors to learn about and correct their mistakes.

The final page of the book uses an analogy from the Wizard of Oz about drawing back the curtain to shed light on the inner workings of power, and Dr. Khurana has done a good job of this. His book is to CEO succession as Sinclair Lewis' "The Jungle" was to the meat packing industry--it will turn your stomach and make you cry out for change if you read it.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Packed with Knowledge! October 11, 2002
Charisma and reputation have replaced management experience and industry expertise in the corner office. Certainly that's not news to anyone who has read the business press at any time in the past decade, but the trend is certainly important enough to warrant the comprehensive examination provided by Rakesh Kurana. Starting with an analysis of the increasing power of activist institutional investors, Kurana traces the process through which boards of directors have forsaken mature managers for media darlings in their CEO searches. In light of the spate of embarrassing and enraging CEO scandals, we from getAbstract recommend this book to all readers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Study this book if you are looking for a CEO January 29, 2004
The selection of a new CEO can be as mysterious as the election of a new Pope, the opacity raising questions about the efficiency and legitimacy of the decisions reached. Because external CEO searches are generally undertaken by companies in the throes of a real or perceived crisis, stakeholders hope the outside CEO will be their savior. Because single-handedly saving a troubled corporation is no ordinary job, boards bent on finding a corporate messiah are not interested in ordinary qualifications but a person who is thought to possess charisma. Enron's Skilling offers a dramatic and instructive illustration of the perils of charismatic corporate ladership. Corporations would do well to reconsider their models of leadership and ways of choosing leaders.
In the decade following McCoy's appointment as CEO, Chicago's Bank One Corporation acquired over 100 banks, moved from 37th largest bank to fourth, and stock increased 500%. In 1999 Bank One began to falter, the stock fell, integrating First Chicago was more difficult than expected, the conservative style clashed with the entrepreneurial culture and McCoy's management style, which was included in the Harvard Business School's required general management course, was seen to be a liability rather than an asset. A revolt gathered steam and a generous separation agreement was negotiated. Stock jumped 11% on the announcement but became volatile with media coverage of the high-profile search for the best person in the US to lead Bank One back to the top with the leadership as the overriding principle guiding the search. Dimon was top of the short list. "In late February, Dimon flew into Chicago to deliver a two-hour presentation to the Bank One search committee. By this time, he had decided he wanted the job.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, insightful, timely topic September 16, 2002
This is an excellent timely book about the culture of corporate executives who have more influence on American life than we previously liked to acknowledge. With CEO's from Enron, Worldcom, GE, and Tyco in the news and affecting our 401k's they are imporant force in our economy that can't be ignored.
Mr. Khurana takes the reader through how these leaders are chosen, what makes them unique including his analysis of the charisma factor, and why everyone should be concerned with this process. He does this in a readable fashion that makes this one of the more enjoyable business books I've read in a couple of years.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important piece of work November 9, 2003
By A Customer
In this important work, Khurana focuses the spotlight on the high-risk dynamics of CEO recruiting - particularly in cases where a company has not been doing well, and its former CEO has been disposed of. He demonstrates that this drama is being played out with increasing frequency in the large corporations which play a major role in our economy.
He finds that a pattern has begun repeating itself in such situations: Boards of directors don't usually take action until a company situation has been deteriorating for a while, so even when they begin the recruiting process, they are already under pressure to take bold and decisive action. This impels them to begin by rejecting any current inside candidates who are felt to be part of the problem, thus incapable of breathing new life into the organization. Underlying this "explanation" is the fear that the press, investors, and the media might not applaud a less-than-spectacular candidate such as any merely competent insider. Such lack of enthusiasm by all these onlookers might well lead to further erosion of stock which has probably already suffered. Thus the directors embark on a quest for some outside candidate who might possess the magic powers to provide salvation. The rejection of inside candidates and the quest for some superstar who can pull a rabbit from the hat are, Khurana asserts, the first steps down a slippery slope that frequently end in tragedy. The book describes the descent and how it has and will affect American business.
This is a fine book that presents a number of fresh insights about a critical issue in the world of large corporations. It is written cogently, with erudition, by an author who is rightfully passionate about his subject.
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