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Harvard smarties name Steve Jobs 'world's best CEO'

Redmond's Steve? Not so much

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The prestigious Harvard Business Review has published its ranking of the world's best-performing CEOs, and we'll give you one guess who is El Numero Uno.

You're right. As the report succinctly puts it, "It may come as no shock that Steve Jobs of Apple tops the list."

What may come as a surprise - or not - it that one other high-profile tech-industry "celebrity CEO," as the report calls familiar faces from the corner office, is nowhere to be found among the top 100: Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer, in fact, is not even mentioned in the report as being among the celebrity CEOs that the HBR was surprised not to find in the top tier of the 1,999 CEOs they evaluated.

The methodology used to decide the best performers - and to eliminate Ballmer - was, in a word, rigorous. Each company's TSR (total shareholder return) was calculated on a daily basis for the CEO's tenure, then weighed against both industry and country returns as a whole. The researchers also analyzed changes in the company's market capitalization as adjusted for country-specific inflation and other factors.

After gathering and analyzing such performance data, the HBR discovered Jobs to be at the top of the heap. "The #1 CEO on the list, Steve Jobs," the report notes, "delivered a whopping 3,188 per cent industry-adjusted return (34 per cent compounded annually) after he rejoined Apple as CEO in 1997, when the company was in dire shape."

Apple's performance since Steve Jobs became 'interim CEO'

Apple's stock price since Steve Jobs became "interim CEO" (chart: Yahoo Finance)

According to the report, since Jobs returned to Apple the company's market value has increased by a wallet-melting $150bn.

That's the kind of performance that gets you dubbed CEO of the Decade, as Forbes declared Jobs to be last month.

Jobs is not the lone tech titan among the the CEOs that the HBR salutes for delivering "top results over the long term."

At number four sits Cisco's John Chambers, who is congratulated for presiding over an industry-adjusted TSR of 1,054 per cent during his tenure, which began in 1995. Chambers' high score was also influenced by the fact that Cisco's market cap has grown a comfy $152bn while he has been at the helm.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is ranked number seven, undoubtedly because Amazon's TSR has been an insane 4,586 percent since 1996, and the value of the company has increased by $37bn.

Right behind Jeff is the only woman among the top 50 CEOs: eBay's ex, Meg Whitman, who helped the pioneering auction site boost stockholders' returns by 1,368 per cent while raising its market cap by $37bn. Impressive, but not enough to keep her board happy after she championed the ill-fated Skype acquisition. Whitman left eBay in January of 2008 after a ten-year run.

Winding up the one-two-three tech trifecta of places seven-eight-nine in the HBR top ten is Google's Eric Schmidt, who since 2001 has piloted the Mountain View Chocolate Factory to a TSR of 344 per cent while increasing its market cap by $101bn. With all the Googly activity of late, we look forward to seeing Schmidt's numbers at the end of the next decade.

After Schmidt, the tech reps in the top 100 drop off precipitously, with only three more techies listed - and each of them being ex-CEOs: John Thompson of Symantec (#19), Tim Koogle of Yahoo (#61), and Tom Engibous of Texas Instruments (#95). Koogle and Engibous, however, were both cited by the HBR for how well their companies did in the three years after they departed. Koogle was number one in that top-ten list, with Engibous pulling in at number seven - although the TSRs of both companies dipped after their departures.

The beauty part of the HBR list is its purity. There's no accounting for leadership, charisma, vision, insight, or any other such intangibles. There are no excuses or explanations based on shifting market conditions, industry disruptions, or emerging technologies. Just cold, hard cash, measured by shareholder returns.

Microsoft's performance since Steve Ballmer became CEO

Microsoft's stock price since Steve Ballmer became CEO (chart: Yahoo Finance)

And on that score, its no oversight to leave Steve Ballmer off the list. Next month marks his tenth anniversary as Microsoft CEO. At the beginning of those 10 years, Redmond's value abruptly halted its previously steady rise - then slipped, dipped, and has remained essentially flat ever since. ®

Bootnote

The Harvard Business School, home of this report, is in the business of selling business degrees. So it's to be expected that they would argue: "Even in the beleaguered financial sector, the MBAs tended to rank better than the non-MBAs. This finding suggests that MBA CEOs have not destroyed value, as some critics would have it."

What they don't mention is that of the top 50 best-performing CEOs on their list, only 14 have MBAs - and Steve Jobs isn't one of them.

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