Pilita Clark: Lists of top bosses fine, but what about worst 50?

Employees and customers could benefit from knowing more about least impressive chiefs

Last week an annual list of ‘top chief executives’  came out, but recent experiences lend heft to the idea that it might also be good to have a reliable list of the worst of them. Photograph: iStock

Last week an annual list of ‘top chief executives’ came out, but recent experiences lend heft to the idea that it might also be good to have a reliable list of the worst of them. Photograph: iStock

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Earlier this month a British chief executive had an email run-in with one of his customers that left the woman gobsmacked.

This man is not a famous grouch, like Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who once said the idea the customer was always right was “horseshit”.

Nor does he make news like James Watt, co-founder of the craft beer group BrewDog, who last week vowed to listen and learn after dozens of ex-staff wrote an open letterclaiming the company was rife with “toxic attitudes” and had a “rotten culture”.

His name is James Price, and he runs an outfit he founded called Everything Genetic, which is one of the Covid test providers the UK government lists for arriving travellers who need to prove they can safely leave quarantine.

The email dust-up began when a friend of mine who had flown into London from abroad wrote to ask him for a refund because the test results she had ordered from his firm had failed to turn up at the expected time.

Price wrote back to say that as far as he could tell his company had stuck to its advertised turnaround times, and if he paid a refund there would be no test result.

My friend, fearing this meant she would be trapped at home even longer, protested vigorously. She said she needed the result, and a refund would encourage customer loyalty, to which Price told her bluntly: “We’d rather have return customers that understand what they purchase.”

He eventually relented when shown what one of his staff had told her about when her results would be ready. Conceding she had been given incorrect customer service information, he offered both the refund and her test results, but it was too late.

My friend, a former senior manager, said she found his attitude so belittling she would never use his firm again.

Price told me later he was sorry for any poor service, including his responses to customer complaints, which would now be handled by others in the company.

But he came to mind last week when an annual list of “top CEOs” came out, this time from Glassdoor, the career site where employees can post anonymous reviews of their companies.

The list ranked bosses in the US, UK, Canada, France and Germany over the 12 troubled months up to May this year, using an internal rating system that measures the quality, quantity and consistency of reviews.

Among its more notable findings: Microsoft’s Satya Nadella made it on to every country’s list except France, which takes some doing, according to Glassdoor.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg failed to make it to the list of top 100 US chief executives for the first time since the rankings started in 2013, when he was rated number one, which is also quite a feat.

Other CEOs who made it on to three countries’ lists were Salesforce’s Marc Benioff; Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman; and Airbus’ Guillaume Faury.

This is all interesting, as were the reasons employees gave for rating these bosses so highly. They did not just provide decent pay, good benefits and career progression, many also got points for offering flexible or remote working.

This is all good to know. Yet the experience of my friend was a reminder that it might also be good to have a reliable list of the worst CEOs. Wouldn’t that offer a more useful guide for potential employees, customers and investors, especially when it comes to smaller, less scrutinised companies?

I know a few people have attempted such things over the years, but no one with the heft of Glassdoor. When I asked the site if it had ever considered such a list, a spokesman said it had not. “We prefer to look at best practice and those that are doing well.”

He pointed out CEOs get a Glassdoor rating based on cumulative reviews – as opposed to one for the most recent year – and these can be instructive.

Ryanair’s O’Leary scores just 43 per cent, well below the site’s average CEO rating of 73 per cent. BrewDog’s Watt comes in at just 52 per cent.

That is all very well, but if the site ever comes up with an annual ranking of the worst CEOs, I know I won’t be the only one eager to read it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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