Latest study: Top CEOs continue to value profits over people

a 1 a ethicsIn lionizing the 100 “Best Performing CEOS in the World, 2019” the latest Harvard Business review (December 2019 edition) shows us that the “best” corporate honchos still care a great deal more about doing well financially than doing good for society, the planet, and employees. This is no small band of brothers (and they are mostly men).

The HBR looked at 883 Chief Executive Officers in 876 corporations in 29 countries that control 70% of the world’s stock market capitalization. Their performance was measured by both financial performance including such measures as return-on-investment and capitalization and  how well a corporation contributes to “environmental, social, and governance” issues also known as ESG. Here’s a quick definition of ESG:

“Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls, and shareholder rights” (

ESG is such a big deal that it is supported by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who invited over 50 CEOs of major financial institutions to “participate in a joint initiative under the auspices of the UN Global Compact and with the support of the International Finance Corporation.” Which they did, resulting in a major global report called Who Wins:  Connecting Financial Markets to a Changing World (

In part that extensive report states “…we believe that markets do not yet fully recognize the importance of new emerging trends, such as the growing pressure on companies to improve corporate governance, transparency and accountability and the increasing importance of reputation risks related to ESG issues…”

Back to the latest issue of HBR and “The Best Perorming CEOs in the World, 2019.” First off, the HBR ranking gives just a 30% weighting of importance to ESG factors, up from 20% but nowhere near the balance that is seriously required to improve working conditions and address climate change. Which mean a “best performing CEO” is one still chiefly ranked on cash flow.

Here, from the HBR data is just how much those CEOs really care. The number-one CEO in the world according to HBR is Jensen Huang of NVIDIA. To be number one he had to get a financial ranking of four. Yet his ESG ranking is reported at 101 calculated for HBR by the firm Sustainalyitics.

In fact, out of the 100 corporations in the HBR ratings not one has an ESR rating above 10. Just four have a rating between 20 and 10. And only two are between 30 and 20. But how about this? The CEO of Adobe, Shantanu Narayen who is rated as No. 4 in the world has a financial rating of 43 but an ESR rating of 304. And so it goes with many of the top 100 CEOs running corporations with an ESR rating more than 10 times worst than their financial rating.

But perhaps there is a lesson for corporations after all. HBR reports that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a casualty of HBR adjusting the ESG rating to 30 from 20 of the final score. Bezos was HBR’s top CEO every year since 2014. But now he’s not even in the top 100.

As the HBR article states, his fall from grace can be attributed to such ESG factors as the “…scores reflect risks created by working conditions and employment policies, data security, and antitrust issues.”

Maybe there’s hope for corporate accountability after all.

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