Coke Classic – CEO Compromised

The diminished status of chief executive officers is everywhere in evidence. But every now and then one of the most prominent of American CEOs is so openly demeaned that even I am struck.

Such was the case several days ago when an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal (link below) that chronicled in painful detail the decline (and likely someday fall) of Coca-Cola’s CEO, Muhtar Kent. The publication of such a piece is itself humiliating, revealing for all the world to see Kent’s perceived weaknesses. It is also debilitating, no doubt enfeebling Kent still further, if only  because his leadership has been so visibly thrown into question.

The essence of the piece – in five easy pieces:

  • Coke’s board has been urging Kent “to appoint a No. 2 for some time.” Translation: Coke’s board has been urging Kent for some time to share his power and authority.
  • Recent discussions between Kent and Coke’s board had “gotten intense and focused.” Translation: Coke’s board was becoming increasingly impatient with Kent’s procrastinating, and increasingly insistent that he agree to the appointment of a second in command.
  • Kent has been a “detail-oriented executive who is sometimes reluctant to give up the reins to other executives.” Translation: The board concluded first that Kent hoards his decision making authority; and second that he lacks the leadership skills to reverse the company’s declining fortunes.
  • Coke’s appointment of James Quincy, who was given the titles of both president and chief operating officer, is intended to “compliment Muhtar’s skills and qualities.” Translation: The board expects Quincy to pick up what Kent has let drop.
  • The lead independent director, Sam Nunn, said of Coke’s board that it remains “fully confident” in Kent’s leadership. Translation: Coke’s board is already looking around for Kent’s successor, with Quincy a top candidate.

Coca-Cola has suffered slings and arrows in recent years, which have little to do with Kent and lots to do with context. The growing evidence that soda is bad for our health is a hill that all soda-sellers will find difficult to climb. I am not claiming that Muhtar Kent is Clark Kent. I am only pointing out that whatever his leadership deficits, he has been a victim of bad timing.

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