The CEOs’ Choice

“There are a lot of awards for a lot of reasons, but until now none from your peers,” said Roger [...]

July 1 1995 by Chief Executive


“There are a lot of awards for a lot of reasons, but until now none from your peers,” said Roger Smith of General Motors when he accepted the first Chief Executive of the Year award in 1986.

It’s still true. CEOs receive recognition for many things-some even business-related. From its inception, however, CE devised the honor to celebrate what CEOs themselves believe to be exemplary, creating a living standard of excellence. Who better to judge this than those who face the task daily?

Wal-Mart’s David Glass is the 10th winner of this distinction. He is also the first-ever retailing chief to be so honored. He earned it in the same two-tier process as his predecessors. The 10 most frequently nominated candidates, as determined by reader ballots mailed with the magazine at the beginning of the year, become finalists for the selection committee. The panel of judges, all current or former CEOs, analyzes the performance, leadership skills, and competitive profile of each finalist. Our College of Cardinals meets in the spring to compare notes and discuss the merits of each finalist (see photo below).

Since judges generally serve three-year, staggered terms, the panel has new blood and reflects different views each year. Its purpose remains constant, however. From the beginning, judges have felt that the CEO is a leader of people and does not operate in a vacuum. The award is given in recognition that the recipient is as much a team captain as an individual player.

Glass has been a finalist in all but two years since the award’s inception-perennially the bridesmaid, but never the bride. Until this year, that is. Why now? Having managed in the shadow of his predecessor, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, some found it difficult in his early years as CEO to separate Glass’ achievements from those of his friend and former boss. Judges also like to see sustained performance to calculate how a candidate copes with cyclical markets and adverse conditions. Trouble is, Wal-Mart hasn’t had any on Glass’ watch.

Succeeding a founder entrepreneur can be a thankless task, yet Glass easily has been equal to it. “Wal-Mart is a striking example of a company that devised a new integrated management approach, which is so successful it changed its entire industry,” says longtime judge Robert Lear, an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School. Adds Mike Cook, chairman and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP, “David did more than build on the tradition of Sam Walton; he created amazing strengths.”

Boeing Chairman and CEO Frank Shrontz agrees. “David exemplifies consistent leadership in sustaining performance against tough competition.”

Opera diva Beverly Sills once was asked to account for her fame. She replied that it took her 20 years to become an overnight success.

Given that schedule, David Glass is running right on time.