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CEOs have a major trust problem

By James Mitchell
5 minute read

Only 13 per cent of Australians trust chief executives and the majority believe they should be subject to greater regulation.

These findings have come from the the Apollo Communications Australian Top 50 CEO Report, which examined university choice, country of birth, average age, international experience, undergraduate degree, social media use and whether the CEOs were promoted from within, or appointed from outside, to identify the secrets to their prosperity.

These pathways have then been compared with what customers expect from their corporate leaders.

QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce is rated by the community as Australia’s best CEO, followed by BHP’s Andrew Mackenzie, Coles’ Steven Cain and Fortescue Metals Group’s Elizabeth Gaines.


Apollo Communications CEO Adam Connolly said the purpose of the study was to provide an annual snapshot of the corporate leadership characteristics of the top 50 ASX-listed companies, and to gauge whether these same features are aligned – or misaligned – with the expectations and values of the average Australian.

He noted that recent crises in the banking, broadcast and aged care sectors have clearly had an impact on community expectations of our most powerful CEOs.

“The number one trait that customers and shareholders want to see in our CEOs is ethical and trustworthy behaviour, rather than traditional measures of performance like company profitability,” Mr Connolly said.

“Only 13 per cent of Australians believe our CEOs are trustworthy, helping explain why 60 per cent believe CEOs should be subject to more regulation.

“Fundamentally, there appears to be a disconnect between what the community expects from our CEOs and what the public perceives they are doing.

“In short, our top corporate leaders have a trust problem. Our corporate leaders need to understand they have to become the chief ethics officer (CEO) of their organisations if they want to succeed in the future.”

Mr Connolly said that almost half of Australia’s most powerful corporate leaders were born overseas, compared with just 3 per cent of the top 500 publicly listed companies in the US.

“Of Australia’s 24 foreign-born [CEOs] in our top 50, nine are from the UK, four from the US, three from South Africa, two from New Zealand and one each from Vietnam, Columbia, India, France and Ireland,” he said.

“This suggests that equality of opportunity for people from different ethnic backgrounds is alive and well in Australia, compared to the world’s largest economy.”

Irrespective of country of birth, 80 per cent of CEOs have worked overseas at some point in their careers, confirming that global experience is highly valued by boards, even if it is largely seen as irrelevant by customers.

Loyalty also pays, with two-thirds of Australia’s top 50 CEOs promoted internally, rather than being appointed from outside.

Australia’s “forgotten demographic”, generation X, has also quietly taken over the running of the country from the last of the baby boomers in the last 12 months, with the average age of our corporate leaders now 54, confirming the torch has passed to a new generation of leaders.

The University of NSW has emerged as the country’s “power university”, educating more corporate leaders than any other, beating out the established “sandstone” institutions, and global icons like Harvard, Oxford, Yale and Stanford.

“The Apollo Communications Top 50 CEO Report is the most detailed study of its kind ever undertaken in Australia, unmasking the pathways to success for the country’s most powerful business elite,” Mr Connolly said.

“What it shows is that studying science at university is the most popular way to become a top Australian CEO, with 12 of our top 50 corporate leaders having chosen that path over more established degrees like business or law.

“Science graduates include Alan Joyce (QANTAS), Andrew Mackenzie (BHP), Patrick Regan (QBE), Steven Cain (Coles), Francesco de Ferrari (AMP), Graham Chipchase (Brambles), Julian Segal (Caltex), Jack Truong (James Hardie), Peter Botten (Oil Search), Mark Steinert (Stockland), Scott Charlton (Transurban) and Ron Delia (Amcor).

“Ironically, only two of the top 50 CEOs, Steve Johnston of Suncorp and Graham Kerr of South32, competed a bachelor of business degree.”

More than 72 per cent of adult Australians think that gender is irrelevant when it comes to making a “better CEO”, while 15 per cent believe women make better leaders than men and 13 per cent believing men do.

“Australians also don’t want their corporate leaders to be social activists, ranking it [eight] out of 10 in CEO priorities, suggesting they want companies to ‘stick to their knitting’, rather than being distracted by social causes,” Mr Connolly said.