The only constant in business is change – that is, unless you’re a male FTSE CEO

96 per cent of the FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are male. On average, they are 46 years old, and attended either Oxford or Cambridge. But does this mean the business world isn't changing at all?

The world of business is constantly changing – that’s not news to anyone. Too often we see the business sections of our newspapers filled with articles about the shifting makeup of corporations, or the increasing use of data to streamline crucial operations. We see a general theme stressing the undeniable impact that technology has had on our businesses, and the remarkable changes that are taking place. Comparatively, we see far less of those changes in the ways our businesses are actually run.

We all have our own idea of what makes up the average CEO. These notions tend to be based upon the types of people who were running our companies decades ago – boardrooms akin to those that go back almost a century ago, such as the famous board at the bank in Mary Poppins, through a couple of decades to American Psycho or Wall Street in the 80s – still dominated by men of a certain background and around middle age.

The CEOs we tend to read about the most – those in charge of some of our largest, multi-million pound organisations – are actively changing such perceptions. Think about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, who are consistently in the press. Both are far more visible than the average CEO in a (comparatively) low-key FTSE 350 firm, and are better placed to alter the conversation around what a CEO really looks like in 2013.

But how accurate is this picture? Recent research we conducted into the backgrounds of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs showed it’s remarkably surprising how conventional the majority of these business leaders are. Our business leaders in 2013 are incredibly similar to those of 50 years ago. We might tune in to watch something like Mad Men now and see its portrayal of business leaders as archaic, yet as a rule, it actually paints a reasonably truthful picture of the present.

96 per cent of the FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are male. On average, they are 46 years old, and we found that Oxford or Cambridge were the most popular universities to attend en route to the chief executive spot. Additionally, these trends are not just restricted to the UK. Domo used data from the Harvard Business Review earlier this year to conduct research looking into the attributes of those heading up the 100 most successful companies across the globe. Again, the overwhelming majority (98 per cent) was male, had a university education and was middle-aged.

So, what does this tell us about the world of business? The way we carry out our work has changed, the ultimate organisational landscape has changed, but why exactly hasn’t business leadership changed? Is there a reason why this traditional form of a CEO has stubbornly remained the same for decades – centuries even? As I mentioned above, the most high profile CEOs in our society could lead us to believe that our top companies are actually being led by very different personas to what we expect from the conventional C-suite, but this is far from the case. Why hasn’t the view from the top generally progressed – and why hasn’t a move towards convention-defying CEOs been embraced across UK business as a whole?

Here we get ourselves into a "chicken and egg" scenario. Is the reason for the average CEO not changing due to a choice from certain individuals to not push for a top-level position, or is it perhaps that companies still expect only a certain type of employee to head up their organisation? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

One prominent issue here is the lack of female CEOs. On the whole, the world of business has been keen to ensure that the overall landscape is one of equality. It should be expected that in 2013, there should be just as many women leading their industries as there are men. However, our research found that only 4 per cent of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs are women, while a study by BoardEx showed this figure to be even lower among our top private companies. Some people argue that a lack of women CEOs comes down to a choice from women themselves not to pursue the very top level positions, and many still think this comes down to putting family ahead of a career or simply women not being as competitive as their male counterparts.

On the other hand, a lot of people think that business "at the top" just hasn’t moved forward as much as we would like to think. It’s thought that women in business still have more social pressure on them than men in the boardroom. A recent poll by LinkedIn saw 46 per cent of women cite "institutional barriers" as the main reason for their not being able to break through to CEO roles. In this case, it could be argued that the "old boy" networks at the top prevent many women from receiving the support they need in business to be able to make it to the top, at least in the same way that men can. Even if there’s no conscious decision or motive behind it, existing business networks, and even traditions themselves, come from a "like for like" approach that results in a lack of diversity, and could also explain the prominence of highly educated Oxford and Cambridge graduates in our current list of FTSE 100 and 250 CEOs. 

Whatever the reason is for the staid CEO, a lack of diversity among board groups is likely to hold businesses back from reaching their full potential. As a matter of fact, research from the UK’s Department for Business last year showed male-dominated boards will fall behind their rivals and will fail to progress at the same rate as they miss out on fresh, creative ideas from women, while hiring people from across different backgrounds and of varied educations can help bring new perspectives to a number of situations and debates.

Clearly change is needed where it just hasn’t happened. We’re being drawn into a false sense of the business world having taken on a completely different shape, where everyone has the same opportunities to reach their goals, but it’s overwhelmingly evident that there’s still some form of glass ceiling in place that’s hindering true diversity at the top and organisations could be suffering from stilted evolution, or even regression as a result. Ultimately, the business landscape on a whole may be evolving at a phenomenal pace, but boardrooms really need to hurry up and follow suit. Technology can take you so far. It’s then down to the individuals and the company culture to encourage change.

The the bank in Mary Poppins through to Wall Street and on to today - has anything changed? Photograph: Getty Images.
RVP Northern Europe and MD UKI, QlikTech
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder