In California, Meg Whitman, ex-CEO of eBay, achieved celebrity status by seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Carleton Fiorina began her quest for celebrity status the day she arrived as new CEO on Hewlett-Packard, in 1999, long before she decided to seek the nomination for U.S. Senator. In her first year alone, Fiorina appeared on over 40 magazine covers. She tried to become the symbol of the company, appearing in advertisements featuring a mock-up of the garage Bill Hewlett and David Packard had used years ago. She promoted "The Carly Buzz Machine" and "All Carly, All of the Time.)
At Wellpoint, our nation's largest health insurer (Indianapolis, Indiana), CEO Angela Braly now seems to be the sitting female CEO most focused on achievement of celebrity status, at least among the current crop of 15 women CEOs (really the only crop, as essentially there were no women CEOs before the late 1990s).
Braly's latest grab at headlines was in response to President Obama's radio broadcast on Saturday, May 8. He stated that his administration recently asked a health insurer (unnamed) to cease systematically dropping coverage of women policy holders who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than remain quiet, Braly stepped into the fray, concluding that the President had singled out Wellpoint and that Obama's generic observation "grossly misrepresented the facts." The address neither referred to nor raised any innuendo about Wellpoint. Braly then gilded the lily": "To be absolutely clear -- Despite your claim [what claim?] Wellpoint does not single out women for breast cancer for rescission. Period."
Many CEOs stay completely in the background. Those with a bolder agenda will act as the corporate spokesperson for positive news. They will leave to public relations or other spokespersons the announcement of negative or unfavorable news. The truly driven will shove all others out of the way, speaking for the corporation in any instance, good or bad. Braly seems to have come to exemplify the latter. In fact, several times her photograph and biography have appeared in full page Wall Street Journal advertisements for various New York fora at which she is to appear, holding forth on the state of the economy or the future of mergers, and so on.
It was not always so. Braly was a health care attorney in St. Louis and a behind-the-scenes operator. She helped engineer the conversion of Blue Cross Missouri into a for-profit-entity, overcoming the Missouri Attorney General's objections. To the surprise of many, Wellpoint named Braly CEO in February, 2007, choosing her over two male candidates for the position.
Braly's appointment was controversial, as her predecessor CEO (Larry Glasscock) had been a deal maker, who put Wellpoint together by a series of acquisitions. Braly was described as "not confrontational" and "a relative unknown," but as "smart and smooth, very, very effective at dealing with people and in dealing with people."
No longer. In addition to her picking an unnecessary fight with the President, Braly has become embroiled in the Wellpoint attempt to raise insurance premiums by as much as 39% for Californians, a rate schedule that later had to be withdrawn because of Wellpoint's mistakes in the calculations.
There are other telltale signs of an unchecked CEO ego. CEOs who seek or proclaim celebrity status often mold a board of directors that will represent few obstacles, peopling it with personal friends, celebrities, and politicians. Two recent examples are Michael Eisner at Walt Disney Company and James Robinson at American Express.
Braly and Wellpoint are a third example. On the Wellpoint board of directors are Sarah Bayh, spouse of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and at one time a champion trophy director, serving on 8 public companies' boards. Another Wellpoint director is Jackie Ward, another perennial woman trophy director (on more than 4 boards). Among the politicians Senator Donald Riegle sits on the Wellpoint Board.
Keep your ego in check is one of the first lessons any corporate CEO but especially women should learn. Be a plowhorse rather than a showhorse. Angela Braly seems intent on becoming the center of attention, unmindful of a fitting role for herself as a CEO.
Professor Douglas Branson is the Condon Falknor Professor of Law at the University of Washington and the W. Edward Sell Chair in Law at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Last Male Bastion -- Gender and the CEO Suite at America's Public Companies (Routledge 2010).