Perhaps it’s time for an amnesty. All those in prominent positions in public life who flouted a lockdown rule here or there should fess up in return for a short, sharp rebuke from Sue Gray and no further repercussions. No doubt the prime minister would welcome such a resolution. But it would come too late for some.
No sooner had Novak Djokovic been sent packing back to Serbia for his breach of Covid-19 rules than news reached us of the resignation of António Horta-Osório, chairman of full-time scandal factory and part-time bank Credit Suisse. As banking scandals go it’s on the tame end of things for sure – skirting quarantine to go watch the tennis (featuring Djokovic ironically). But, whether jumping or pushed, he had to go. In AHO’s own words – which appear to have been hung around him – we appear to be witnessing an emerging executive culture of “personal responsibility and accountability”.
In comparing the drawn out and ongoing fortunes of Djokovic and Johnson with the swift justice given out to AHO, we glimpse something of the new reality facing corporate CEOs. For a time, so long as the share price was still climbing the boss could simply tap the Milton Friedman sign over his (and it was, usually, his) desk while choosing to deport himself in whatever manner he chose.
Things are a bit more complicated now. CEOs find themselves facing greater demands from regulators, investors, consumers and employees not just over their own behaviour but also their company’s wider social responsibility. In polling carried out last year, younger consumers around the world were looking to business more than government to solve today’s big challenges by a margin of five points. Two thirds said that it was more or as important for a company to have a social purpose today than before Covid-19. In this context, having your CEO in the papers as a rule breaker rather than a problem solver is bad for business and boards are becoming increasingly quick to act.
Last year saw bigwigs depart for sexting, skipping vaccine queues, being overly familiar with people at a party, and being overly familiar with Jeffrey Epstein. It took just two weeks of the New Year for the first corporate head to roll for matters which were not strictly relating to his day job. It’s safe to say others will follow before the year is out. For some, this shift in roles has gone too far. It’s condiments at dawn over at Unilever with complaints their CEO is too concerned with purpose and sustainability and not enough with the bottom line.
In truth, you can’t put the mayonnaise back in the bottle. The job description of the CEO has been fundamentally altered; they must now balance business imperatives with an antenna for wider societal expectations as well as an understanding of their company’s contribution to climate and environmental concerns.
The bar for personal culpability in the private sector seems to have been raised alongside. This is to be welcomed given how depressingly low it has fallen for our current incumbents of public office. CEOs should embrace this wider role for its own sake, and as it contributes to the success of their businesses. Just be sure to check the lockdown rules first.