BBC Capital

Syd Weighs In

The best CEOs of 2013

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

  • Revealing the best chiefs of 2013...

    For several years I’ve compiled a list of the worst chief executive officers of the year, leaders who, by virtue of their poor performance, warrant being called out. Last week I named the worst CEOs of 2013, and this week I turn my attention, for the first time, to the best.

    There are two criteria I considered:

    1. Did the CEO’s company experience a significant improvement in performance, as indicated by its stock price, cash position, market share or other key financial metrics?

    2. Does the CEO deserve credit for this success, in that he or she actively made decisions or followed strategies that were related to that success? As was the case for worst CEOs, it is important to focus on those leaders who stood out by virtue of what they did, and not because of general economic conditions in a particular industry or sector.

    So, who were the best CEOs of 2013? Scroll through the images above to see the five best, beginning with No. 5.

    Editor’s note: The opinions in this piece are those of the author.

    (Robert Landau/Corbis)

  • The fifth-best CEO of 2013…

    Reed Hastings, the CEO of Neflix, is the comeback kid. Remember the infamous “Qwikster” debacle when the company announced it would split its DVD-by-mail business from its emerging broadband streaming business, raising prices in the process?

    Customers revolted, more than one million strong, and Hastings was roundly pilloried in the press. I ranked him among the worst CEOs of 2011.

    But what a recovery! It helped that the underlying idea for the shift made sense — ordering movies by mail is a very analogue way to make money — but after apologising for how Netflix treated customers, Hastings spearheaded a renewed focus on execution and innovation at the $22.2bn market capitalisation company.

    In classic Silicon Valley style, the massive data Netflix collects on customers, in combination with enormous cloud-based resources (powered by Amazon), has enabled the company to match up availability of videos to customers in different locations based on past viewing patterns. Media companies use technology to deliver content. Netflix has become a technology company that delivers content to customers in original ways.

    Hastings is aggressively pushing Netflix into global markets, where it often faces local copycat competitors that are unlikely to have the same level of technological sophistication. This powerful growth strategy, when coupled with an innovative culture that is generating original content like the Emmy-nominated drama “House of Cards”, helped account for a tripling of Netflix’s market cap in 2013.

    Reed Hastings deserves credit for this turnaround, and is this year’s fifth best CEO of the year.

    (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

  • The fourth-best CEO of 2013…

    The world of fashion is always looking for what’s new and exciting. This year we can add to that list of cool the CEO behind one of the most explosive growth stories of 2013: John Idol of Michael Kors.

    Idol was part of a team — alongside Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou — who acquired the Michael Kors business in 2003 when it was generating just $20 million in sales. Despite his incredible talent as a designer, Michael Kors the man had been struggling for some time running his business.

    Enter John Idol. He defined the company’s value proposition as runway fashion at accessible prices, a category that placed Michael Kors below the Louis Vuitton’s of the world, but above just about everyone else. He repositioned the company to pay particular attention to accessories — handbags, shoes, watches, jewellery — which tend to get less beaten down by discounting. And he created two brands: the flagship Michael Kors that commanded the highest prices and the Michael by Michael Kors brand that brought accessible luxury to a wider audience.

    This new strategy has taken off. Revenues are around $3bn, with $1bn of that coming from watches. Same-store sales growth hit an unheard of 40%, the number of Michael Kors stores is growing around the world and the stock is up 4 times the 2011 IPO price.

    Idol is something of a post-modern CEO. His management style: being inclusive, fighting against silos, open to debate, creating opportunities for new talent to develop and avoiding complacency.

    Photo: Idol, on left, with Vogue editor Anna Wintour and designer Michael Kors (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

  • The third-best CEO of 2013…

    Pony Ma is the founder and CEO of the Chinese Internet company Tencent. To say that 2013 has been a good year for him and his firm would be an understatement. The market valuation of Tencent has skyrocketed to more than $100bn, to Facebook-like levels, the new mobile platform WeChat has almost tripled its active users (25% outside of China) and the company appears to be poised for tremendous growth.

    What is especially impressive about the leadership of Pony Ma is the transformation of the once PC-dominated company to a leading player in mobile. Two years ago Ma pushed Tencent to develop a new mobile platform from scratch, shifting more than half of the company’s 20,000 employees to work on the challenge.

    Unlike Microsoft, which still hasn’t been able to make the transition, and even Facebook, which has just recently gotten traction in mobile, WeChat is an unqualified winner. The platform enables sharing of text, photos, and video, and offers live chat, instant messaging, online gaming and entertainment, and recently a payment service to support e-commerce.

    While there are competitors — Line in Japan, Kakao in South Korea, WhatsApp in the US — the fact that Tencent’s WeChat has been able to so quickly leapfrog more specialised companies such as Facebook and Twitter is remarkable. It puts Ma’s company in position for global growth, making Tencent a kind of 2.0 company in China where opportunities outside of the giant home market may eventually rival and even surpass revenue generated from Chinese customers.

    Pony Ma is also a 2.0 leader, humble enough to admit “my biggest crisis is that I don’t understand what young people like.”

    Given what he’s done at Tencent, that might be a bit of an overstatement. Pony Ma is the third-best CEO of 2013.

    (Bobby Yip/Reuters/Corbis)

  • The second-best CEO if 2013…

    The grandson of the founder of Toyota, Akio Toyoda started his tenure in 2009 under extremely difficult circumstances: sudden acceleration, product recalls, the global financial crisis, the Japanese tsunami that disrupted the parts supply chain and a surging yen.

    He didn’t always manage this adversity well, being especially slow to confront the sudden acceleration crisis in the US.

    After finally apologising to the US Congress in person, he went to work fixing Toyota. Like several other of the best CEOs of the year, Toyoda was all about change. Rather than build reliable cars that nobody disliked, he wanted to sell exciting cars that people loved. So he decided to test drive each new model and provide direct feedback — in a very non-traditional manner for a Japanese executive.

    He appointed Americans to run North America and Latin America, another first. He cut bureaucratic layers and has even taken personal responsibility for the Lexus business. Fighting against bottom-up consensus that is inherently slow, he’s pushed for what he calls fast and flexible decision-making.

    Toyoda’s biggest strategic move may be TNGA — Toyota New Global Architecture — which is based on simultaneous development of multiple vehicle models and massive use of common modular components. TNGA has the potential to be a game changer in the automobile industry if it does what it is supposed to do. That is, control costs on a global scale and enable sharing of engineering breakthroughs faster than ever before.

    Along with all these changes, Akio Toyoda can feel pretty good about 2013. Market cap is up over 60%, considerably more than Nissan and Honda; profits are expected to hit a record $17bn; and Toyota is on pace to be the first car maker to produce 10 million vehicles.

    (Toru Yamanaka/Getty Images)

  • The best CEO of 2013…

    The best CEO of 2013 is Jeff Bezos, the founder and impresario at Amazon.

    This company is in the midst of a super-growth cycle fuelled by innovation, extraordinary customer focus and a long-term outlook that is highly unusual in a world of quarterly earnings pressure. Yet Bezos has sold Wall Street on his long-term play, barely booking any net income while watching Amazon’s market cap increase by around 50% in 2013.

    What is Amazon? A cross between package delivery company UPS, the local library and a giant warehouse, Bezos has created a company that should be boring but is anything but. Amazon is a cool brand with exceptionally low prices — an unusual combination. Wal-Mart only boasts one of these attributes.

    The Bezos innovation formula is continuous. From selling books to selling just about everything, to creating new products and services like Kindle, Amazon Prime, original content creation, a giant cloud business, and the plumbing behind thousands of e-commerce operations, Amazon is ubiquitous.

    He is unafraid to experiment, and is especially fond of targeting industries wedded to history, which includes much of retail. He seems to have a sixth sense for which businesses are ripe for disruption, one of the most recent being the apparel industry. Bezos deserves credit for building a giant company that is as nimble as a start-up.

    Bezos is that most unusual of business leaders who combine one part entrepreneurship, one part cutthroat competitor and one part McKinsey-like focus on execution. Like Apple’s Steve Jobs before him, Bezos is the one everyone else watches to see what he’ll do next. Whether it’s promoting drone delivery of packages on the day before Cyber Monday — clearly the PR scoop of the year — or delaying state sales tax collections on online purchases in exchange for completing in-state distribution centres, Bezos and Amazon find new ways to win.

    The biggest companies are usually the slowest and most vulnerable. Bezos has built Amazon into a giant company that is quicker and smarter than others.

    Jeff Bezos, the best CEO of 2013.

    (Joe Klamar/Getty Images)