Sheryl Sandberg, billionaire and chief operating officer of Facebook (centre), and Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google (right), listen as Jim Hagemann Snabe, a board member of the World Economic Forum, speaks during a session on day two of the forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policymakers attended the meeting. Photo: Bloomberg.

Corporate chief executives (CEs) tend to be pretty smart, sophisticated people. Talk to them about the particulars of their companies, their industries or maybe their hobbies and many of them can be downright fascinating.

Get a bunch of them from different industries and parts of the world together to talk about their common concerns, though, and the result is almost inevitably fatuous. This explains a lot about last week’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Davos gets picked on for this inanity, but it’s really just that it’s bigger and more public than most CE gatherings. These are simply the kinds of noises CEs make when herded together.

One major reason for this, I think, is that top executives, especially when you gather them from around the world, don’t have all that much in common.

Challenges

Yeah, they’re mostly men, and in Europe and North America they’re mostly white men, but get a big enough group together and you’ll encounter widely varying backgrounds, interests, goals and attitudes. What they all share is mainly just this: They’re very well off. Their jobs are very challenging.

They can’t really sit around and talk about the first, especially not in public. So CEs tend to go on and on about the second. About how fast-moving everything is these days, how much uncertainty their businesses face and how many different groups (“stakeholders” is the term of art) are clamouring for their attention.

These are all real challenges, but they’re also vast, shifting and hard to pin down. Every once in a while somebody – an academic, a journalist, maybe even a business person – comes up with something interesting to say about one of them. It always turns out to be of limited applicability, though, because the world is too complex and dynamic to be captured in a single theory.

For busy big company CEs, then, conversation on these topics tends to be a mix of the occasional profound insight, a lot of home truths, a lot of buzz words and a generous helping of nonsense. That’s probably true of conversations in most groups.

Because these CEs are especially wealthy and powerful people, though, their conversations get a lot of attention. What’s more, a whole industry has grown up to jot down and analyse their utterances, however dubious their value.

This brings me to “The CEO Report”, published last week – timed to coincide with Davos, of course – by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and Oxford’s Said Business School.

I don’t have anything against Heidrick & Struggles and I like the Said Business School, but this document, based on interviews with more than 150 CEs, feels like a compendium of everything that is wrong with CE-speak and its consultant-speak offshoot.

The report’s sub-title is “Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership and the Power of Doubt”, and, according to the people at Heidrick, the study is supposed to “point to the capabilities that will enable today’s leaders – and tomorrow’s – to prepare for, and thrive in, a business environment marked by uncertainty and change”. Just what might those capabilities be?

Balance

Anticipating how, when, and why different contexts may interact to disrupt an organisation requires leaders to develop “ripple intelligence”, as well as the ability to harness doubt more effectively in order to improve decision-making.

Moreover, as business conditions change, CEs must learn to balance authenticity and adaptability in order to motivate their organisations to action without squandering the trust they have worked so hard to build.

I’m pretty sure that no actual information was conveyed by that last paragraph. It’s a little like the adults in Peanuts cartoon talking, except that the sounds are produced not by a trombonist but by consultants and business scholars.

Every once in a while little bits of humanity and intelligence do peek through in the report: “There is this mantra at the moment that change is faster than it’s ever been and therefore these kinds of issues are going to be greater,” one CE is quoted as saying. “I don’t really buy that.”

Then it’s time to ignore such utterances and get back to making unsupported assertions about the speed of change and synthesising the absence of thought on what to do about it. How else, for example, does one explain a chart like this, which is intended to give CE readers “a more granular understanding of change”.

It doesn’t get any clearer with the accompanying explanation, I promise. There are many more such visual head-scratchers in the 36-page report. I thought about including several more here, but that felt like overkill (my personal favourites, in case you want to explore the report on your own, are Figures 7, 9 and 12). Plus, near the end of the report, I stumbled across a chart that was actually interesting.

This is interesting because it treats CEs as objects of study rather than fonts of wisdom. That kind of research can be really valuable.

But again, CEs are wealthy, powerful and busy people. They’re generally not going to want to spend their time being test subjects for somebody else’s research. So instead of getting to understand them better, we have to listen to them talk.