The modern CEO job is completely broken — but AI could make executives useful again

From writers and teachers to bankers and lawyers, most jobs seem ripe to be replaced by artificial intelligence — with one notable exception. The only job that seems to be safe from the rise of ChatGPT and other AI tech is, oddly enough, the most expensive and easily automated role: CEO.

Chief executives have recently spent a lot of time threatening to replace their lazy, entitled, and unproductive workers with AI, but they never seem to face the same level of scrutiny other employees do. Look a little closer, though, and it becomes clear that the role of the modern CEO is not only broken, as I've pointed out before, but it could easily be done by the technology we have now.

America's top CEOs make over 300 times more than the average worker, despite the fact that their primary duty is to make easily replicable optimization decisions based not on a real understanding of the business but on inputs from spreadsheets fed to them by consultants. Far from being an actual contributor to a company's bottom line, the late 20th century's "superstar CEO" movement has ushered in a generation of executives who operate mainly as figureheads with little actual responsibility or accountability.

The solution is fairly simple: We must hold CEOs accountable in the same way that we do their employees or dissolve the role entirely. A chief executive must meaningfully contribute in a way that is measurable and delivers clear value for the company. Failing that, I would argue that the opaque role of the CEO should be the first one to be replaced by artificial intelligence. An AI model would likely give quicker answers, be in a continual state of self-improvement, take feedback instantly, and deliver the same kind of "operational efficiency" for which the current crop of CEOs are paid millions of dollars a year.

As the comedian Scott Seiss succinctly put it in a late-July TikTok post: "Let's replace our employees with AI? Let's replace our CEOs with AI. Actually, AI is too advanced for that job, all you need is a Fisher Price tape recorder loaded up with a bad bunch of ideas."

If it's broke, then fix it

CEOs like to project an image of invincibility — without them the directionless company will fall apart. "You can't replace me," the attitude screams, "I'm just too valuable." So what exactly is it that these executives are doing on a daily basis that creates so much value? A 2018 Harvard study of 27 CEOs tried to answer this question. The final report put the executives' various tasks into impressive-sounding buckets like "people and relationships," "functional and business unit reviews," and "strategy." But digging deeper, it's clear that these painfully vague allocations of time are masking the fact that executives have a great deal of trouble telling you what they do for a living. Most of the time is spent in meetings, talking about "strategy," and making big calls rather than contributing meaningfully to the organization, through either experience or actual execution.

Even when major CEOs are given the chance to clearly state the value they offer to a company, it comes across as noxious word salad. The former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley wrote a 2009 Harvard Business Review article called "What Only the CEO Can Do." Once described as the "most successful CEO in P&G History," Lafley made as much as $19.5 million a year in his role. Here's how he described to role of CEO:

"The CEO alone experiences the meaningful outside at an enterprise level and is responsible for understanding it, interpreting it, advocating for it, and presenting it so that the company can respond in a way that enables sustainable sales, profit, and total shareholder return (TSR) growth."

He also incorrectly stated that "the CEO can see opportunities that others don't see" and "make the judgments and tough calls others are unable to make" thanks to being "the one person whose boss isn't another company employee." Can you imagine any Procter & Gamble employee bringing such a vapid and generic answer to their manager? Can you imagine telling your boss that what you did today was "interpreting the meaningful outside"? Lafley appears to summarize his position and value to the company as someone who doesn't actually do or have any responsibility for anything while also holding more power than anyone else in the organization. Alternatively, imagine asking any old AI model to describe the job of a CEO. It would probably spit out something much better than "balancing sufficient yield in the present with necessary investment in the future."

It isn't as if executives can't be useful for a company. A chief financial officer focuses on cash flow, makes sure the taxes are paid, and ensures the financial statements of the company are properly prepared. A chief security officer makes sure employees don't get hacked or ensures the physical safety of workers. By contrast, a chief executive has become a figurehead who makes calls based on vibes with the occasional meeting or press hit mixed in.

Don't get me wrong — a company does, generally, need a figurehead, and you need someone with a companywide perspective who can guide an organization and make decisions. You need someone who defines the mission and then holds the company to that mission. But if the executive's only role is to make these decisions with no other contribution to or accountability for the results, the role loses much of its value. Chief executives have become the Final Managers — disconnected "ideas guys" like Elon Musk who get credit for every major success without being fired for a single major failure. Without connecting their outsize pay to the results of their decisions, there is no reason to have a CEO. If the job of a chief executive is simply to take data and regurgitate extrapolations that deliver "efficiency," I can think of no role more appropriate for AI replacement.

Stars in their eyes

David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, has been a major part of the reason that the Hollywood strikes have gone on for months. Zaslav — who made $39 million last year — along with the other members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have helped suck as much as $5 billion out of the California economy (and the entertainment industry). And it's not as if his business decision-making at his own company is earning high marks with investors either: Since the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery in 2022, the company's combined market capitalization has dropped by $20 billion.

Perhaps the most galling part about his leadership of one of Hollywood's flagship studios is the fact that he appears to never have been involved in the ground-level process of making a movie, TV show, podcast, or any other creative pursuit. Zaslav began his career as a lawyer and has spent decades working in media in various "strategic" capacities, but his utter disconnection from the process of creativity has helped prolong this costly, painful strike. He and the other studio heads seem to believe entertainment is a commodity that can be automated and produced at will. Since the merger, the CEO's most notable creative decisions have been to cancel shows, yank content from the company's streaming services, and shelve already-completed movies, all in the name of saving money. These aren't the moves of an executive passionate about creating high-quality entertainment that will win the public's dollars; it's the type of eye-glazing number crunching that could be done by feeding an Excel spreadsheet into an AI model.

An executive who has never had to directly contribute to the product that produces the revenue to pay his (it's almost always a man) salary is the most easily automated job of all time. Executives who only "make calls," sign contracts, or give vapid media interviews are not doing work — they're glorified productivity software, a barely relevant regurgitation machine built from a core of privilege and exploitation. These CEOs don't do the work; they just query a database of other executives and actual workers to make calls without any practical experience or actual conviction behind the decision, kind of like ChatGPT. The difference is that when CEOs "hallucinate," it tends to cost thousands of people their jobs. And almost every one of those layoff announcements refers to efficiency or "necessary changes," yet never acknowledges the biggest, stupidest expenditure of them all: a vacuously defined public steward who makes more than anybody else at the company.

Chief executives have become part of the managerial-industrial complex, an entire section of the economy for people who don't contribute anything other than demanding others do their work. "Management" is not a job unless you have the core experience of the thing you are managing at such a level that you could actually do it yourself. The CEO of a tech company should be able to code, or build, or design. The CEO of an entertainment company should have been directly involved in the creation of successful movies or television shows. I'd even go as far as to say that the CEO of an airline should be able either to fly a plane or to handle multiple shifts a year as a steward on one. What better way can we hold a chief executive accountable than making sure they actually execute?

A CEO should be someone who has an active role in the profit generation of the business, either through actively building the company or through closing the deals and partnerships that will generate said revenue. Said chief executives must also be held directly accountable to real metrics and have their pay tied directly to the success of the business, the happiness of the business' customers, and the happiness of their employees. From my own experience, companies thrive (and great workers stay) when they feel that their boss works as hard as they do and can actually express what it is they do on a day-to-day basis. In my own life running a tech PR agency, I take responsibility for new business, pitching, writing, and media training — the same jobs that the people working for me do, because no work at a company is below its chief executive.

Define what a CEO is, set the terms of their success, and then hold them accountable. If you can't do that, you don't need a CEO. Or perhaps your CEO needs to make a more modest income. Or perhaps the chief executives need to be far more afraid of losing their jobs to equally capable robots.


Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR, a national tech and business public-relations agency. He is also the author of the tech and culture newsletter Where's Your Ed At and the host of the "15 Minutes in Hell" podcast.

Read the original article on Business Insider