A New Breed of CEO

Is it true?

Edwardson, 54, formerly president of United Airlines, has even made a series of wacky wagers, all part of an active campaign to diminish the majesty and mystery of his role as chief executive. CDW is a $4.3 billion Vernon Hills, Ill., company that sells IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other manufacturers' computers and related equipment by phone and over the Internet. Throughout his tenure, Edwardson has made regular bets that the company can't achieve certain metrics. When it has, he has responded by shaving his head or growing mutton-chop sideburns. Edwardson doesn't act like a traditional CEO, doesn't look like one (at least, right after losing a bet) and he certainly doesn't talk like one. "Hey, it's important for me to be visible and accessible," he says. "I'm trying to dream up unique ways of energizing and motivating my co-workers."

Edwardson is an original, no question. But it's safe to say that he is also representative of a growing phenomenon. Increasingly, the top spots in Corporate America are getting handed to a new breed of CEO. It's an ever younger leader, one more often in his or her 40's or 50's than 60's and 70's.

But the trend is not merely generational. A host of factors have contributed to a new corporate environment, one that has changed the nature of the CEO job, as well as the leaders themselves. The classic CEO management mode-distant and hierarchical-is losing out to a new style that's more open, communicative and collaborative. These team-builders, no longer royalty, are valued as much for their unsullied reputations as their solid track records. They feel at ease with the latest technology and eschew extravagant perks, sporting a humility that would have been considered, well, unseemly even a decade ago. They use the media to communicate with their constituents, not to glorify themselves. "The imperial CEO is dead," says Peter Crist, a 26-year veteran of the executive-search field.

Companies get what they reward. Imperialist CEOs arise when companies reward blind ambition, 80-hour work weeks, and all that other macho-I-am-the-king stuff. Can you imagine a board meeting where someone says "Hey let's not give the job to Joe, he doesn't have a good work/life balance. Let's find someone who will relax and spent more time with his/her family."??? I don't think so.

Let's hope that a decade from now we aren't back in the same mess.