Twilight of the CEOs

New York Times: Bertelsmann Chief Fired in Top-Level Clash.

Messier, Nacchio, Ebbers, Sommer, Pittman, now Middelhoff…. The hits just keep on coming for communications and media industry rock-star CEOs. This is no doubt a reflection of the overall state of the industry — some captains have to go down with the trillion-dollar sinking ship. But it’s more than that. With the exception of Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom, fired and probably soon to be indicted for accounting fraud, these high-profile CEOs talked big and couldn’t deliver. They were visionaries, which are what everyone wanted at a time when visions rang truer than balance sheets. We’ve now moved to a period where operational excellence matters more than quarter-over-quarter growth.

In telecom, the two high-profile CEOs I respect most are Dave Dorman at AT&T and Jim Crowe at Level 3. Both are big thinkers, but they don’t lose sight of what business they’re in. Both face enormous challenges. Level 3 is one of the last 1990s fiber backbone players to remain standing, but with serious financial question marks. AT&T has abandoned its local broadband efforts and spun off its wireless division. But both companies have under-appreciated strengths, which their CEOs understand. They may well fail. But don’t write them off just yet.