The CEO as 24×7 Expeditor? That’s Not Good

DETROIT - MAY 21: Chrysler Group LLC Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne attends a celebration of the production launch of the new 2011 Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant May 21, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. This is Chrysler's first new vehicle to be introduced since they emerged from bankruptcy. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The traditional model of business leadership has the CEO as the most important decision maker. Generally, the higher up you go, leaders make more decisions and they make more important decisions. Information flows up to people who make the decisions. This is often true in hospitals, this top-down decision making, and it's just as dysfunctional.

What happens when a CEO uses technology to be able to make more decisions? Time will tell, but it seems not to be a good trend.

Pictured at the top of the post is Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. Articles like this (“Marchionne the miracle worker“) reinforce such thinking, the imperial CEO who does it all himself (or herself in many cases). Sure, the CEO plays a critical role, but a turnaround at a company like Chrysler certainly comes as a team effort. I personally prefer CEOs who keep somewhat under the radar and avoid articles that make them out to be the sole hero.

I saw this other article a few weeks back, “Chrysler's speed merchant,” with the relevant clip below:

Since Marchionne already had 21 direct reports at Fiat Group, and must divide his time between Auburn Hills, Mich., and Turin, most management experts would call his method madness. But instead of becoming a bottleneck, he has turned himself into an expediter because he is always reachable. “They have access to me 24/7,” he says, and when they call or e-mail, he makes decisions in minutes — or seconds. While traveling, he stays in contact with one of his six BlackBerrys. “BlackBerrys are divine instruments,” he purrs.

I can't tell if Marchionne is clutching a BlackBerry in his right hand in the above photo…

Is this the model of 21st-century leadership, using technology to make the CEO more of a decision maker? Is breeding such dependence on the CEO such a good thing. It undoubtedly makes Marchionne feel important and powerful, but is that what's best for Chrysler or Fiat or the shareholders?

Or is the better model one where the CEO oversees a culture, a management system, and processes where things can get done without the CEO being a 24×7 decision maker?

What's the trend in your organization – is technology further entrenching the old model of information flowing up so decisions can be made top down, or is technology enabling more decisions to be made at lower levels?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Count me among the naysayers predicting that “a resurgent Ford will eat his lunch.”
    Alan Mulally brought from Boeing a Deming/TPS inspired outlook. He’s not a lean “purist”. I won’t argue that, (apparently neither is Toyota?).
    However, Mulally’s work has focused on getting Ford’s famous feuding under control, getting the whole team to work together with the same goals, and in a remarkably short amount of time, he’s gotten real results, in his own words: “vehicles people want and value.”
    I haven’t seen the faintest glimmer of hope out of Auburn Hills. Profits follow products. Any short term fluctuation in profit is outweighed by the reality that Chrysler doesn’t have any competitive vehicles to sell, nor any on the horizon.

  2. Unfortunately articles like the ones you quoted really do perpetuate the myth, as many people who aspire to leadership postitions read the business pages in search of inspirational role models for successful leaders, – even more so if there is an apparent lack of them nearby.

    I guess only time will tell as to whether Marchionne will lead them into the sunshine, or whether he is a brief flare in the darkness.

    I guess the popular media needs strong characters.

    The big question for me, is: Is he really making decisions in minutes, or is he just rubber stamping good reccomendations made by good people he trusts, but micro-manages?

    If they are true decisions he is making in seconds, then I thank god that he is not in charge of oil exploration or mass transit.

    Imagine the class action suit, when the prosecutor asks: “Mr Marchionne, exactly how long did it take you to make the decision to use recycled neon brakes on the dodge ram?”*

    * I don’t think they do this, but how would he know if it slipped through in an SMS on one of his blackberries?

  3. Heroes are great to revive the spirit and hopes of people, to help individuals and groups have a vision and believe in their voice and own strenght when they have fallen in apathy through oppression or complacency. Heroes are not helpful when they create dependency on their intervention. They might operate from good intention but they maintain apathy.

    • Yes, heroic efforts are sometimes necessary and positive, but the same heroic efforts performed day in and day out become harmful instead of heroic, I’d argue.

      Taking it down from the CEO level, let’s say an O.R. nurse is a hero for running out of the room to find an instrument that’s needed for surgery. Once, that’s good. Now if that’s happening everyday, then there’s a clear sign that the system needs fixing so we can avoid the heroics.

  4. This reminds me of the “chain of how” piece about the company FAVI in Matthew May’s IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE. The old premise at the company was that everyone is stupid except for the CEO. Problems need to be escalated up the chain of command to be solved asking each level “how to …”

    Once the new CEO Jean-Francois Zobrist started, he removed most job titles and said the people work for the customer and not him. FAVI employees are encouraged to make decisions and take quick action to improve daily work and respond to the needs of their customers.

    Marchionne is modelling the “chain of how”. He may not personally think everyone in his company is stupid, but his “heroic” placement sends a similar message.

  5. After reading this post I have read Jim Collins’ Good to Great which was recommended reading from the course I’m doing.

    The biggest problem I see for someone that aspires to be a level 5 leader is working in a culture of blame and fear, so that if something doesn’t go quite right, regardless of the cause, if a person were to look to the mirror and accept responsibility they would very soon end up as a whipping post, and not develop very far.

    What do others think?


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