CEO rankings vs. politicians

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook recently garnered a 99.1 percent investor approval rating. To America’s chief political executive President Obama, that level of quantified approbation might seem like a change he can’t believe in, seeing as his own recent ratings have been almost 50 percentage points lower than that. Specifically, an ABC poll conducted in mid-March 2013 placed Obama’s approval ratings at 50% — a number that is generally in sync with other recent polling data according to the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center.

It might seem surprising that, in a democracy, a corporate executive can enjoy better approval ratings than a popularly elected politician – especially in the light of the highly publicized anti-corporatocracy Occupy movements in Europe and the Americas. However eyebrow-raising such data may be, though, numbers like this are not a fluke. In fact, they’re representative of a consistent pattern in regards to the differential between corporate and governmental job approval ratings.

Glassdoor, a website whose annual employee-determined CEO rankings are widely cited in the business world, posted approval ratings3 of 93% for Apple’s Tim Cook; 99% for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; 95% for Google’s Larry Page; and 96% for Northwestern Mutual’s John Schlifske. As impressive as these numbers are, though, they aren’t even all-time highs; they’re just the overall ratings for 2012. By contrast, Obama’s highest approval rating thus far was 76%.

To be fair, other presidents have – sometimes fleetingly – achieved higher maximal ratings. For example, the highest peak approval rating since WWII was George W. Bush’s 92%, which he achieved only in the wake of the tragic events of 9/11 and the upsurge in patriotism that they inspired. Traditionally more popular presidents whose ratings did not enjoy the “benefit” of similar national tragedies experienced less CEO-like approval rating peaks. Amongst relatively recent presidents, Democrats Clinton and Carter peaked at 73% and 75% respectively, while Republicans Reagan and Nixon peaked at 68% and 67%4.

If just the maximal ratings don’t seem convincing, well, even as measured by average approval ratings, businesses still fare far better than governments. Glassdoor’s average CEO approval rating is 70%5, which is significantly above the average job approval ratings cited for most presidencies of the modern era. Gallup poll data puts Truman’s average approval rating at 45.4%, Eisenhower’s at 65%, Johnson’s at 55.1%, Ford’s at 47.2%, Reagan’s at 52.8%, and Clinton’s at 55.1%. Of post-WWII presidents, only one had an average approval rating over 70% — and that was the prince of “Camelot,” John Kennedy, whose average rating was 70.1%.6

So what does all this mean? Well, it seems that if elected officials were CEOs, they’d be fired. In public corporations, for instance, executives with 19% approval ratings – a rating level once held by the latter President Bush – quickly become ex-executives. Though other presidential ratings nadirs never dipped as low as the 43rd president’s did, they would still be considered abysmal in business terms. Bill Clinton’s least favorable job approval number was 36%; George H.W. Bush’s was 29%; Ronald Reagan’s was 35%; and Jimmy Carter’s was 28%.4 By contrast, when a CEO’s performance incites such widespread dissatisfaction amongst investors and employees, the company’s board of directors begins handing out executive pink slips. Just recently, in early 2013, Groupon’s Board of Directors fired CEO Andrew Mason in light of consecutive underperforming business quarters and declining stock prices. Mason’s termination was certainly not an isolated instance of corporate accountability; CEOs with decidedly poor job performance are frequently fired. Generally, it seems, political leaders are able to maintain approval rating levels that would bring any business leader’s career to a grinding halt.

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