A lot of people have blamed short-term thinking for causing our current economic troubles, which has set off a debate about what time window we should use to assess a CEO’s performance. Today boards of directors, senior managers, and investors intensely want to know how CEOs handle the ups and downs of running businesses over an extended period. Many executive compensation plans define the “long term” as a three-year horizon, but the real test of a CEO’s leadership has to be how the company does over his or her full tenure.
This article contains the first ranking that shows which CEOs of large public companies performed best over their entire time in office—or, for those still in the job, up until September 30, 2009. To compile our results, we collected data on close to 2,000 CEOs worldwide.
It may come as no shock that Steve Jobs of Apple tops the list. However, our ranking does contain a few surprises. You’ll see some relatively unknown faces at the top. The inverse is also true: Some obvious candidates in terms of reputation don’t make the top 50, which we’re printing in this issue—or even the top 100 or top 200. (To view the top 100 and access a list of the top 200, go to hbr.org/top-ceos.) In fact, our list overlaps very little with lists of the most-admired or highest-paid CEOs
When we analyzed the data to see which factors increased the likelihood that an executive would rank high, we uncovered a few more surprises. Although one might expect context to have a big effect, we found a wide diversity of countries and industries represented among the top performers. The CEO’s background did matter, however, as did the situation left behind by his or her predecessor.
Our data highlight the great extent to which CEOs account for variations in company performance, beyond those due to industry, country, and economic swings. That drives home how important it is to use objective, long-term measures to assess CEOs and to inform CEO searches and succession planning.