CEO Risk-Takers Will Take All

CEO malaise is an unfortunate economic fact of life in America today. Frozen in their tracks by the prospect of war, overcapacity, and new rules for corporate governance, many chief executives are cutting costs and avoiding bets on the future. Not all of them, though. In the land of high tech, CEOs at IBM, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Microsoft are boldly preparing for the next upturn. They're using this interval to move beyond saving dollars to taking serious risks. These CEOs know that long-term survival in the business world depends on reinvention and growth. CEOs still in a funk would do well to start benchmarking themselves against their braver counterparts.

Take IBM's Samuel J. Palmisano. He's attempting nothing less than a remake of his company's culture to bring back the glory days. Positioning himself as the anti-imperial CEO, Palmisano is asking the board to cut his 2003 bonus and distribute the money to his best-performing top managers based on their ability to work as a team. In a gamble for tomorrow, he's pushing an entirely new business concept -- e-business on demand. Think delivering technology to corporations the way a utility distributes electricity, with grids of computers and self-healing software delivering services to customers when they need it.

Will Palmisano succeed? Maybe. Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems are all pushing their own versions of e-biz on demand. In the end, IBM's greatest gain may be the very process by which Palmisano is focusing the company, fusing expertise in software, computers, and consulting to implement a new vision. We haven't seen enough of that kind of grit in recent years. CEOs need to show more of it.

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