Five of the most influential CEO’s in History

In the following article I share what I learned about Five of the most influential CEO’s in History. Indeed, many chief executive officers have come and gone with barely a notice. But some CEOs have made history with their techniques and management styles, and it is those leaders that we highlight here. We have chosen five of the most influential CEOs in history and will mention why each was influential and why his/her legendary prowess is still prominent in business.

Five of the most influential CEO's in History

Since choosing particular leaders is quite subjective, here are the criteria we used to determine what “influential CEO” means.

  • a leader who has changed the way corporations do business
  • a leader whose methods are part of corporate America, his/her ways have become standard operation procedure
  • the leader is not a flash-in-the-pan but rather has long term influence
  • the influence relates to the methods of being CEO, not the products that were created.

Henry Ford was the founder (1903) and CEO (President 1906) of the Ford Motor Company. Among many of his accomplishments that are regularly used today in manufacturing, he is known as the Father of Modern Day Assembly Lines. He envisioned and created the moving assembly line where the pieces came to the workers, and each was responsible for a single task. This was known as the Division of Labor and saves millions in productivity costs. He also pioneered better wages and benefits for employees, and was somewhat a one-man modern union. His ideas of mass production are mainstream manufacturing today.

David Packard, who along with fellow Stanford graduate, William Hewlett, founded Hewlett-Packard Co. in 1939. Their methods of management quickly became known as the “HP Way”. They truly believed that earning money solely for the benefit of shareholders was not the ethical way of doing business. In their minds, employees should benefit as well. They were known for pioneering the “Open Door Policy”, where employees had the right and were encouraged to express their opinions to better the organization. In fact, there were no doors on the offices.

Katharine Graham was the President (1963), Chairman of the Board and CEO (1973) of the Washington Post Company. In addition to being female in a man’s position, she also was not at all trained nor interested in the leadership role of her family’s business. But instead of selling the company upon her husband’s suicide, she decided to run the company herself, keeping the business purchased by her father in 1933.

But those points alone do not make her influential or even memorable. What she is best known for is her stance on reporting the truth. Two of her decisions were historic in spite of the real possibility of being charged under the Espionage Act. The first was in 1971 when she pondered whether to print the Pentagon Papers, a document that carried vital information about the Vietnam War and government deceptions. The second was the Watergate Democratic National Committee break-in in 1972. Then-president Nixon was forced to resign. She published both stories. Today, no-one questions the media publishing derogatory information when true. It is called “investigative journalism”.

James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson from 1976-1989 has long been remembered for “crisis management”. In 1982, several people died when someone poisoned Tylenol tablets with cyanide on the store shelves. Despite exorbitant cost (estimated at more than one-hundred million dollars) to the company, Burke, ordered all the bottles recalled and replaced. But aside from the quick response, taking action for something that was clearly not the company’s fault, he had some years earlier reminded executives and managers about the J&J Credo. It was the original founders’ ideas that led up to the decision regarding the Tylenol scare. They had vowed that they would do the same that any mother would do.

Jack Welch was the Chairman and CEO of General Electric from 1981-2001. Having started as a junior engineer, he quickly scaled the ranks to become the youngest GE CEO. His belief was that every entity under the GE umbrella had to be the best in its category, and had to be profitable. He is emulated because of his no-nonsense form of management where it has been stated that he was responsible for over one-hundred thousand people losing their jobs. He quickly reacted to market trends and removed deadwood from the company, both in plants and people. Today, we see more companies using this form of streamlined management, as plant and office closures are at their highest.

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